Research partnerships must ‘match China’s ambitions’

British universities’ partnerships in China need to ratchet up from academic research collaborations ending in published papers to a broader and more strategic approach to match China’s own national ambitions, an international higher education forum organised by Universities UK heard this week.

Referring to the “Eastward march of innovation” and China’s ambitious five-year plan for 2016-20, charting the country’s reorientation from manufacturing towards a knowledge and service economy, Matt Durnin, the British Council’s head of research and consultancy in East Asia, said the country’s economic trajectory creates new opportunities for United Kingdom universities.

The “tremendous growth” in joint UK-China research publications is now beginning to slow which may be an indication that “low-hanging fruit may have been taken”, Durnin said. “Now we need to look forward to more strategic ways of approaching research collaboration.”

Durnin described UK-China higher education partnerships as moving from “unidirectional”, with China “looking to extract research excellence from their partners”, towards transnational education where universities deliver curriculum and courses in China, leading to a deeper bilateral relationship. However, the university-to-university partnerships need to go further, perhaps pulling together a cluster of universities around research, and involving industry within China.

University involvement must now be part of even broader research collaboration which linked more closely China’s overall economic aims. UK universities “must be willing to match China’s ambition”, he said.

“China has got ambitions to lead and not just follow in HE [higher education] and research going forward,” he said.

Research partnerships go further

Jon Frampton, deputy pro-vice chancellor at the University of Birmingham and director of the university’s China Institute, said the focus of the partnerships between Birmingham and its partner universities in the southern cities of Guangzhou and Nanjing is research. Academic partnerships come “on the back of that” because the partnerships are conducted by universities, he noted. But the partnerships go much further than that.

Birmingham’s approach “is to build a long-term partnership to deal with China at all levels”, he said, describing his job as nurturing existing partnerships and bringing in new partners.

“The match we try to make is for the research partnership – commercial or purely academic – to be aligned to the local strategy" established by the provincial or city authorities in China, Frampton told University World News.

Birmingham’s research partnerships with the city of Guangzhou involve links with the municipal government which can provide funding for two- to three-year research projects involving “an academic in Birmingham to work with an academic in Guangzhou often associated with a commercial enterprise as well, but working towards the ambition of the local government”, he said. This involves coordinating large projects.

Some of the areas of focus include big corporate projects in energy storage and railways research, including high-speed, energy efficiency and cooling trains, in which Birmingham University has some expertise, Frampton said.

Collaborate not compete

Most UK universities compete with each other in the recruitment of students from China, but the collaborations described at the Universities UK conference session ‘New frontiers in UK-China research collaboration’ suggested that UK universities should work together to match China’s needs. “Partners we used to think of as competitors will be coming to the table,” Durnin said.

Despite statistics that show a tremendous rise in research publications – China is catching up with the United States in publishing output – “China still trails most of its peers in terms of impact,” Durnin said.

China also leads the world in global patent applications, driven by government policies to push companies to apply for patents. However, the actual number of patents granted is low compared to Europe, he said. China needs to collaborate with countries like the UK to bridge that gap.

Much of China’s research is in product development and adaptation to the Chinese market. “China is a global leader in the process of bringing to market. China is also very innovative when it comes to business models,” Durnin said.

Where China lags is in high-end ‘frontier technologies’, which have not yet reached mass market commercial adaptation – these currently include robotics, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and digital manufacturing.

British universities have particular skills in inter-disciplinary research and coordinating large research-based projects – it has been particularly successful at securing coordinating roles for big European Union-funded research consortia, an experience which will be useful for collaborative projects with China as the UK pulls out of the EU, delegates at the conference heard.

Meanwhile emerging trade tensions between China and the Trump administration in the United States will also present an opportunity. “The bilateral relationship between the UK and China if anything is enhanced by the current world status of political upheaval,” Frampton said.

But benefiting from the opportunities in the East will mean a wider vision and a willingness for UK universities to come together in broader alliances with each other and multiple partners, the conference heard.