A think tank has warned that British universities have become “worryingly dependent” on foreign income, especially from China, with two-thirds of revenue raised from charging Chinese students going to some of the UK’s top research institutes.
A report by the centre-right think tank Onward found that of the £5.8 billion income universities derive from overseas, non-EU students, more than a third — £2.1 billion — comes from China. Around £1.4 billion of that went into the elite Russell Group of universities alone.
The report, published on Wednesday, also argues that an increase in overseas students has crowded out British students from some of the top universities in the past four years, including at Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Imperial College London, University College London, and the London School of Economics.
“As previous Onward research shows, the growth of international students at Oxford and Cambridge has been matched with a decline in the number of state school pupils winning places at these institutions,” the report said.
Further, in last year’s intake, more Chinese students were accepted into UK universities than “the number from the South West, or Yorkshire and the Humber, or the East Midlands, or Wales, the North East or Northern Ireland”. The Higher Education Statistics Agency found in January that 35 per cent of all non-EU overseas students are from China.
Ten British universities are dependent on Chinese students for more than a quarter of their income including Glasgow, Liverpool, and Sheffield universities (28 per cent); Imperial College London (26 per cent); and University College London and the University of Manchester (26 per cent).
Significantly, this dependence also creates fragility in terms of academic independence, with the report warning that “there are well-founded concerns that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or organisations that it controls have sought — in some cases successfully — to undermine academic freedom and the integrity of scientific research on UK campuses”.
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Onward’s director and author of the report Trading Places said: “While overseas students generate valuable income and international focus on UK campuses, universities have become worryingly dependent on them for their finances, undermining their independence, credibility and long-term sustainability.
“Britain has never had a serious debate about the growth of overseas students. Yet the viability of the UK’s most prestigious universities – to say nothing of billions of pounds of science funding – is now decided not in Parliament but in countries thousands of miles away.
“Even more worrying is that a third of overseas funding comes from China, a country whose government has shown itself unafraid of threatening to cut student flows in response to criticism and whose commercial partnerships with UK universities are increasingly under scrutiny.”
Onward is not the first body to express concern of communist Chinese influence in British universities.
In November 2019, the Foreign Affairs Committee published a report on the influence of the Confucius Institute, which is a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education. Witnesses quoted in the report said that the Confucius Institute had confiscated papers mentioning Taiwan at an academic conference at the London School of Economics. At the University of Nottingham, which has a campus in China, academics were reportedly pressured to cancel events related to Tibet and Taiwan after complaints from Chinese officials. There have also been claims that Beijing uses the Confucius Institutes across the country to spy on Chinese students.
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Reports from June claim that the British taxpayer may be inadvertently funding the Chinese military through joint Chinese-British academic projects. In response, China hawk Iain Duncan Smith said that the projects were “tantamount to transfer of technologies to the Chinese government”.
“You cannot say that there is any [Chinese] institution that is safe from the reach of that government… If they take technology as part of a market position, they can use it for other things,” Sir Iain said.
This month it was revealed that four top Russell Group universities were engaging in a pilot project for a tech platform that allowed Chinese students to study for British degrees at home — so long as the material on the platform abides by the Chinese Communist Party’s strict internet rules.
Neil O’Brien MP, who like Mr Duncan Smith sits on the Sino-sceptic China Research Group, called it the “latest sign of the way UK universities are being changed by their dependence on Chinese students. The government needs to start collecting data on Chinese firms’ investments into our universities and be clear about the values we won’t compromise.”
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