UK universities see boom in Chinese students

Branwen Jeffreys
Education Editor
@branwenjeffreyson Twitter

Media caption,
Chinese student Renwei Deng: 'I chose Liverpool because of The Beatles'

The number of Chinese students at UK universities has soared - rising by 34% in the last five years.

It means China now sends more students than any other country, inside or outside the EU, to the UK.

The 120,000 Chinese students are an important source of income for universities because international students pay fees two to three times higher than UK students.

The government is keen to attract more students to the UK.

But MPs have warned that universities are naive in underestimating the influence of the Chinese government on campus.

The figures are startling. Since 2014-15, the number of Chinese students in the UK has grown from 89,540 to 120,385, compared with 26,685 students from India.

But numbers have not yet peaked.

'A wider view'

The University of Liverpool has been one of the most successful in recruiting from China, which now provides almost one in five of its students.

More than a decade ago it was involved in creating a new university in the city of Suzhou, near Shanghai.

Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University runs degree courses which involve students coming to Liverpool for two years.

By the end of the decade, the joint venture is expected to have grown to almost 30,000 students.

Some also choose Liverpool directly - including Renwei Deng, whose love of The Beatles prompted him to choose it for his degree in accounting and finance.

Now in his final year, he calls himself Kevin and is part of an all-Chinese band, Mandarin Crisis, that plays in local venues.

He says: "I wanted to see a different culture, to truly see what I'd seen on TV about different countries. And I wanted to experience different values.

"It makes me think more objectively especially about global matters, I won't see them through only a Chinese perspective, I'll have a wider view."

But, like all the mainland Chinese students I meet, Kevin politely but firmly declines to be drawn into commenting on anything that might be controversial - including the recent protests in Hong Kong by pro-democracy campaigners.

Censorship concerns

Chinese families often pay for students' British undergraduate courses.

But dozens of postgraduate scholarships are being funded by the Chinese government.

MPs have expressed concerns that universities are not thinking through the implications of relying on significant amounts of Chinese money.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee said they were being naive about the potential risks around intellectual espionage or freedom of speech.

Tom Tugendhat, the former committee chairman, says when a university does a deal to set up a campus abroad or recruit lots of students, it's not just about bringing in money to the UK.

He wants universities to engage more with the Foreign Office to get advice. "In some countries censorship comes with the cash, and in others control comes with the students.

"Those students will not just be bringing open minds ready to learn, but also the apparatus of state control either through direct influence or through pressure exerted on their families that really is completely foreign to British universities."

Mr Tugendhat thinks UK universities should follow the example of some in the US and Australia, which have asked the Confucius Institute - which promotes Chinese language and culture - to move off campus.

The recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have brought issues around freedom of speech to the fore on some campuses.

Image caption,
Two students from Hong Kong said they had been harassed

Speaking anonymously, students at universities in other parts of the UK, said that was something they had experienced directly.

One said: "If I get identified by the Chinese embassy or government, I might put the safety of relatives living in China under threat."

There have also been reports of intimidation after posters were put up on campus supporting democracy in Hong Kong.

A student said: "I've had death threats on mainland people's group chats saying they'll kill me over things I've put up, saying they'll bring knives to kill me. They've also harassed me by putting up photos of where I stay."

And another said: "They are doing things that are not really acceptable, but everyone seems to be accepting them for what they are, for the short-term benefits."

While they feel able to complain, they fear the financial contribution from Chinese students could make universities reluctant to be firm.

'Too big to ignore'

So would a university such as Liverpool welcome a pro-democracy campaigner to speak at an event on campus?

Prof Gavin Brown, pro-vice-chancellor at the university said they would want to be sensitive to relationships with any partner, but ultimately were part of the academic tradition of free speech in the UK.

"They are welcome. We think it's far better for a university to provide a place where views can be expressed but also challenged and debated."

So does he think they are in danger of being influenced overtly or subtly by the amount of money flowing into the university from China?

"China is now the second largest research and development economy in the world. They have a quarter of all research and development scientists in the world.

"We cannot afford to ignore the contributions that Chinese research can make."

In essence, China is too big to ignore, and has so much money and research capacity that universities around the world will continue to engage with it.

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