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Consultation response | UK Relations with China


UK Relations with China Inquiry

A response from the University of Southampton | January 2017

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UK Relations with China

Submission from the University of Southampton

1. This submission is from the University of Southampton, a UK Higher Education Institution with significant collaborations with China, particularly in the area of education.

Summary of key points

The UK's economic, financial and trade interests with China, including the effects of the UK leaving the EU on the UK-China relationship

2. The higher education (HE) sector is a major source of export earnings for the UK, primarily through the education of international students. The number of Chinese students educated by the UK HE sector has nearly doubled from 46,000 in 2006/07 to 90,000 in 2014/15. In the same period, Chinese students at the University of Southampton have gone up more than six fold, from 469 in 2006/07 to nearly 3,200 in 2015/16.

3. This growth reflects a number of factors, including both rising incomes in China and the quality of the higher education sector in the UK. The major competition for this market comes from the USA and Australia.

4. The overwhelming majority of these Chinese students come to the UK to study. A relatively new phenomenon has seen UK universities opening campuses and teaching their courses in China. The University of Southampton, for example, teaches around 500 of its Chinese students in Dalian, in a collaboration with Dalian Polytechnic University.

5. The UK HE sector is heavily dependent on China, particularly for student recruitment. Chinese students at the University of Southampton represent over 40% of the University’s “international” (outside the EU) fee-paying students, the largest cohort of any country. Any downturn in the attractiveness of the UK HE sector to Chinese students could be very difficult, and there is a need to manage that dependency by increasing the diversity of our international student base. This has been made more complex by a recent significant decline in student recruitment from India, driven in part by changes in visa regulations for students (specifically, removal of the post study work visa). However, there are opportunities for growth in student numbers from a number of economies that could allow a diversification from such a strong reliance on Chinese students.

6. The effect of Brexit on international recruitment is not yet clear. Currently, students from other EU countries study with the same arrangements as UK students (lower fees, available student loans and no visas). If numbers of EU students falls post-Brexit, UK HE will rely even more on Chinese students, increasing the risks (particularly if potential future changes to the visa system are implemented to discourage international students). That said, a reduced value of the pound could increase the competitiveness of UK HE to Chinese students.

7. In the last decade, there has been a significant rise in collaboration with China on research as well as in education. This reflects very significant investments made in research in China, which is leading to the development of some world-leading research universities. Many UK universities, including Southampton, have partnerships with Chinese Universities including both education and research. The University of Southampton, for example, has a joint Web Science Lab with Tsinghua University.

8. In some cases, collaboration with Chinese research institutions has come through large funded international collaborations, including those funded under the EU research programmes. It is not clear if the UK will still be able to be part of EU research programmes post-Brexit (that is subject to Brexit negotiations and decisions from the UK Government), but if not, there is a danger of the UK not being part of key consortia which are building research links with China. However, opportunities also exist if international research collaboration is seen as a key element of industrial strategy and international trade going forward.

The opportunities and threats posed to the UK by China's long term relative and absolute growth as an economic and security power

9. Up until now, the growth of China as an economic power has been of significant benefit to the UK HE sector, as China had the resources and desire to educate increasing numbers of its population, but not HE institutions of the quality which existed in the UK and US. This is rapidly changing – the best Chinese universities are world leading and the Chinese HE sector is growing rapidly in both volume and quality. Not only will this mean that the number of Chinese students studying the UK will reduce, but the Chinese HE sector is already actively pursuing international students themselves, some of whom might otherwise have come to the UK. This will have significant repercussions on UK university finances going forward.

UK 'soft power' in relation to China, including through education, tourism the British Council etc

10. The University of Southampton, like many UK universities, has very active alumni networks in China. We find that our Chinese alumni are some of our most enthusiastic, both for their university and for the UK in general. Many collaborations we have developed with institutions in China have been with University of Southampton alumni. Scaled up to the UK HE sector as a whole, there is a significant cadre of Chinese in positions of influence in public and private sectors in China who are alumni of the UK HE sector. This presents a significant opportunity, particularly as China develops over the next 10 years.

The UK's engagement with China on human rights and wider values, including the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue

11. There is some good open dialogue about these matters at academic level, and this plus engagement through soft power routes can help to defuse what remain a highly charged issue.

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