‘De-risking’ China is no easy matter for universities – Report

Having risked blowing the United Kingdom’s research relationship with Europe through a three-year post-Brexit delay in rejoining the multi-billion-euro Horizon programme, British universities now face being caught up in another international government fallout, this time with China – its fastest growing research partner.

With the United States and China locked in an intensifying contest for technological leadership that is drawing in the UK and many other countries, the threat that global scientific endeavour will be disrupted by geopolitics – with knock-on effects on student and academic mobility – has risen sharply over the last two years, warns a new report.

Published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, the report titled The China Question Revisited: ‘De-risking’ higher education and research, highlights how growing geopolitical tensions and national security concerns have prompted the British government to adopt a tougher stance toward Beijing.

This is a big shift from the ‘golden era’ of UK-China relations under pre-Brexit Conservative premier David Cameron, who prioritised trade and investment over national security.

So far, current UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has resisted calls for a ‘decoupling’ between China and the West, advocated by hawks including a number on his Conservative benches in Parliament. However, in May Sunak did describe China as the biggest challenge to global security and prosperity at the end of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Important income for research universities

This has helped to focus UK higher education and research stakeholders on the considerable challenges of ‘de-risking’ higher education and research engagement with China, which is now the single most important source of international fee income for the UK’s research-intensive universities.

Chinese students are vital to the talent pipeline into research careers and a wider STEM skills base in the UK, says the report co-authored by Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate Analytics, Jo Johnson, a former Conservative minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation, and Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight. Adams and Johnson are both visiting professors in the Policy Institute at King’s College London.

Turning to calls by the government and Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, for universities to reduce their dependence on China, the report concludes that such measures have in some cases stalled or are going backwards.

OfS announced in June that it had written to 23 higher education providers with large numbers of students from China “to ensure they have contingency plans in case recruitment patterns change and there is a sudden drop in income from overseas students”.

Although the regulator did not name the institutions, it was clearly focusing on the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, given that 17 of the 18 higher education institutions with the most Chinese students on campus in 2021 to 2022 were Russell Group members.

In 2021 to 2022 one fifth of UK higher education institutions hosted over four-fifths of the overall Chinese students in full-time education.

University College London leads the pack, with almost 11,000 Chinese students out of a non-UK student body of around 24,000, followed by the universities of Glasgow, Manchester and Edinburgh as well as King’s College London.

While the Chinese student body remains the largest international group in the UK, it has declined slightly as international recruitment shifts from first degree to one-year taught masters programmes, which have seen exceptional growth in students from India and Nigeria, particularly for less-selective post-1992 institutions which charge lower international tuition fees.

Another major change since the full implementation of the Brexit withdrawal agreement in 2020 to 2021 has been the notable decline in EU countries as the top source markets for bachelor degree students, with the number of first degree EU students in the UK falling to 84,200 in 2021 to 2022, from 106,500 the previous year – a decline of 21%.

There has also been a drop in EU demand for doctoral studies in the UK since Brexit, which has added to the dependence of the UK research base on Chinese doctoral students.

The proportion of Chinese full-time doctoral entrants in UK higher education has increased significantly over the past five years, from 17% in 2017 to 2018 to 28% in 2021 to 2022, says the report.

No other China or EU for PhD demand

Ilieva, who looked specifically at geographical diversification and PhD students, told University World News: “The main point is that there is no other China or EU for PhD demand.”

She said: “PhD students are embedded in the research landscape of UK higher education and the study shows that they most likely follow through an academic career in the UK and actively contribute to the research outputs.

“Any disruption of the talent pipeline is likely to have a knock-on effect on the quality and quantity of UK research outputs.”

Not all commentators are pessimistic about the future. Dr Cheryl Yu, a consultant on UK-China international education, told University World News: “My perception of the UK-China relationship is that there is no direct conflict between the two countries; on the contrary, on the ground level, people enjoy working with each other, and are appreciative and respectful towards each other.

“The geopolitics between China and the United States means that more Chinese students may choose the UK as their study destination, and researchers and industries will also seek collaborative opportunities in the UK as an alternative.

“International higher education is very much a market-driven industry, and the UK higher education sector should really think of this as an opportunity to engage with the second-largest economy in the world for mutual benefits,” Yu said.

“International education is all about exchanging ideas and collaboration, which should not become political.”

A great deal at stake

Whether the latest twist in UK-China relations, with a British parliamentary researcher accused of spying for China, makes any long-term difference remains to be seen.

Analysis of data from the Web of ScienceTM global citation index, part of ClarivateTM, shows that in 2021, 22,591 research papers – roughly 10% of the UK’s total output – had a co-author in China, up from 5,105 in 2011. The latest data suggests China’s contribution to UK research output has continued to rise, to around 11.4% of papers in 2022.

So there is a lot at stake, particularly as the UK needs time to regain lost ground by the delayed re-association to the EU’s €95.5 billion (US$102 billion) Horizon Europe research and innovation programme, which runs until 2027.

There have also been worryingly high drop-out rates from some of the fastest growing alternative markets for students, such as those from India and Bangladesh, and students from Nigeria tend to be attracted by one-year master’s courses in less research-intensive post-92 institutions, which have lower entry requirements and lower fees.

Ilieva told University World News that it will be “difficult to incentivise student recruitment away from a market like China”, which will not be affected by any changes to post-study work and where the “students are stellar performers against the student success metrics like non-continuation and completion rates”.

She said: “UNESCO data on international mobility from China shows a 7% decline in 2021 compared to the previous year. This slowdown is evident in the other large sending countries for international students like India and Vietnam, which means international recruitment will become more competitive.”


The paper from King’s College London proposes a range of measures that it suggests could help with ‘de-risking’ the UK higher education sector’s relationship with China and regain political support for international students as a whole, which has taken a dip since the demise of the Boris Johnson led government. These include:

• Requiring universities to publish an annual statement on their international student recruitment plans, in order to provide greater visibility of current strategies to diversify the international student population.

• Improving regulation of course quality, given high drop-out rates among students from countries such as India and Bangladesh.

• Weeding out poor quality and fraudulent applications by charging an application fee for international students and requiring tuition fees to be paid upfront and maintenance funds to be put in escrow at the start of the year.

• Maintaining a register of recruitment agents and publishing key performance indicators relating to visa refusals, to improve accountability.

More generally, the report argues the UK should focus on student recruitment from Europe and priority countries in South Asia, with a competitive post-study work offer important in attracting students from the latter region.

It also strays into domestic higher education policy by saying that the single most effective way for the government to reduce higher education institutions’ dependencies on Chinese students would be to allow domestic tuition fees to increase with inflation, a policy to which no party is yet committed.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.