From geopolitical risk to common ground for HE cooperation

Geopolitical tensions between China and the West have significantly reshaped global power dynamics, influencing international academic collaboration – an indispensable factor in advancing global scientific knowledge. Initially, these changes manifested in United States-China cooperation, but the ripple effects have extended to European Union-China relationships.

For example, several European countries have published policy guidelines for academic cooperation with China. A growing sense of caution regarding the influence of Confucius Institutes is becoming apparent across Europe. In certain countries, universities are displaying increased hesitancy to accept PhD students funded by the China Scholarship Council.

Moreover, numerous academic cooperation agreements between European and Chinese institutions have not been extended. Concerns have also arisen about European institutions hosting Chinese scholars and doctoral students in the fields of science and technology.

These sudden shifts have thrust the responsibility onto policy-makers and practitioners on both sides to tackle complexities in EU-China higher education cooperation. By identifying the core contributing factors to these challenges, relevant stakeholders can formulate relevant strategies and approaches to navigate the intricate landscape of ongoing EU-China higher education collaboration.

Paradoxes in EU academic cooperation objectives

In addressing the shifting geopolitics of academic collaboration, the EU employs a more defined strategy for cooperation with China than China’s strategies toward the EU, which focus on bilateral agreements with individual member states.

Both the EU and its member states broadly agree that while sustaining partnerships with China is crucial, exercising vigilance is equally imperative.

On the one hand, the EU seeks to maintain its cooperation with China, particularly considering China’s substantial strides in science and technology.

On the other hand, the EU has introduced more rigorous measures to ensure that collaborations with China do not undermine academic freedom, intellectual property rights, or the security of European institutions.

Nonetheless, the objectives of bolstering collaboration with China and preserving academic freedom and security can sometimes create a paradox, given their disparate interests and motivations.

Collaborating with China presents new avenues for academic and scientific innovation, yet it may also expose universities to risks associated with Chinese policies and practices concerning academic freedom and intellectual property. Consequently, those engaged in academic partnerships with China may face challenges in striking a balance between the benefits of collaboration and the need to protect academic freedom and security.

This uncertainty leaves academics pondering the way forward.

Misperceptions about EU-China cooperation

The current state of higher education cooperation between the EU and China is marred by mutual misperception.

Within the EU, it is widely believed that China’s authoritarian system heavily intertwines political discourse with the practices of its higher education institutions when it comes to cooperation with Europe. However, the reality in China tells a different story. Moreover, Chinese universities are grappling with how to maintain their European partnerships amid the charged atmosphere of geopolitical tensions.

In China, it is assumed that European higher education institutions, owing to the longstanding tradition of academic autonomy, maintain significant independence from political discourses concerning cooperation with China.

Yet, the reality within the European Union reveals a different scenario. The attitudes of European higher education institutions towards collaboration with China have increasingly aligned with governmental positions, as government stances somehow reflect the institutions’ values.

However, the situation is not simply a direct correlation between state policies and university positions; the wider EU-China relations and certain unfortunate experiences of collaborations with China have negatively affected the perceptions of individuals at European universities about China. Regrettably, these misperceptions not only cloud the true realities, but also result in misguided actions, hindering collaborative progress.

China has strategically opted for different approaches when engaging with the US and the EU, driven by the need to traverse complex geopolitical challenges. While China is ready to confront tensions with the US across various sectors, it anticipates that Chinese universities can maintain collaborations with their European counterparts, independent of the political rhetoric between the EU and China.

However, this expectation is flawed, as European higher education institutions’ actions are more congruent with national and EU-level policy discourses than previously understood.

Consequently, Chinese universities might encounter unexpected hurdles and confusion in their day-to-day operations within the EU. For example, cooperation agreements with European partners may not be renewed upon expiration, and new initiatives might receive a lukewarm reception from their European counterparts.

In devising strategies for higher education cooperation with China, the EU and its member states often reference the practices of the US, and occasionally Australia. They tend to foresee challenges akin to those presented in the US’s academic cooperation with China.

However, it is important to note that Chinese higher education institutions face fewer governmental constraints when collaborating with the EU, in contrast to their dealings with the US. As a result, the European approach to higher education cooperation with China may have been overly cautious.

While security and academic freedom concerns are indeed valid, policy-makers and practitioners could be excessively stringent in their interpretation and enforcement of these principles. This might lead to missed opportunities for (truly) mutually beneficial cooperation, contributions to global sustainability efforts and the advancement of European interests.

Hidden risks in EU-China university cooperation

Undeniably, current misperceptions between the EU and China have had adverse impacts on their higher education cooperation. However, it is vital to note that these misinterpretations can catalyse a much deeper and more worrying issue – a vicious cycle in which misunderstandings (and distrust) intensify and cooperation weakens.

On one side, the lack of mutual understanding exacerbates the challenges inherent in higher education collaboration, forming a barrier to effective communication and the pursuit of shared goals. On the other hand, as cooperation deteriorates, it significantly dampens people’s motivation and commitment to learn from and understand each other, further deepening the divide.

The emergence of such a destructive cycle is becoming increasingly apparent, and if left unaddressed, it will severely hamper the long-term prospects of EU-China higher education cooperation.

If both sides eventually wish to strengthen their partnership, restoring the relationship to its former state will be extremely challenging due to the erosion of trust and capacity.

The way forward

To address the aforementioned challenges in EU-China higher education cooperation, the following recommendations apply to involved actors, including policy-makers, university leaders and administrators, and academics.

Firstly, capacities for mutual understanding, cooperation and problem-solving should be continuously improved and are essential to breaking the above-mentioned vicious cycle. Secondly, both sides should consciously foster an open and transparent environment during collaboration discussions, especially when addressing the impact of current geopolitical challenges.

Thirdly, there should be a heightened (self-reflexive) sensitivity towards aligning academic cooperation with the political and economic agendas of the EU and China. Fourthly, sustainable development should be prioritised in collaborations to form a common ground for reconciling diverse interests within the EU-China cooperation context.

Lastly, new perspectives should be developed for assessing risks and gains, particularly regarding what European higher education and the EU gain from China collaboration, despite the risks.

While these recommendations might already have been considered to some extent in various practices, given the escalating EU-China competition and tension, they have become more critical than ever.

Yuzhuo Cai holds the position of senior lecturer and adjunct professor with the Higher Education Group within the faculty of management and business at Tampere University in Finland. E-mail: This is an edited version of an article in the current edition of International Higher Education.