Picture credit: Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images
Artillery Row

British universities have a China problem

The increasing influence of the CCP is a threat to free inquiry and free expression

The UK’s top universities have been accused by Sir Iain Duncan Smith of being “in hock” to China, by clamping down on free inquiry and academic freedom for fear of losing funding. As reported recently, the former Conservative leader said universities were so reliant on revenue from overseas students that they were terrified of criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) being aired on campus.

Sir Iain, one of a string of politicians to be sanctioned by Beijing over his criticism of senior Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, said: “A lot of universities have basically admitted to me they are completely in hock with Chinese students, that they wouldn’t be able to exist if they didn’t have their fees.

“There’s a real problem with human rights in China, but a lot of Chinese students are scared about speaking out because they are monitored. So they will shut down any debate on China,” he added.

Sir Iain was reacting to news that University College London (UCL) has banned Michelle Shipworth, an associate professor at its Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources — and a member of the Free Speech Union (FSU) — from teaching a “provocative” seminar on China in order to protect its commercial interests.

After 15 years of unblemished service, senior administrators stepped in to prevent Michelle teaching her MSc course, and blocked her from accessing internal systems or even communicating with students, after a Chinese postgraduate complained that a seminar discussion of modern slavery in China was too “provocative”.

Incredibly, UCL sided with students who said they were “distressed” by Michelle’s handling of the topic, and imposed a raft of restrictions on her in order to ensure their courses remained “commercially viable” to Chinese students.

One of those restrictions is that Michelle must from now on “find different ways of encouraging Chinese students”, because “using China as a topic of discussion seems to be contributing to the perception of bias instead of engaging students positively”. In another email seen by the FSU, she is told by administrators to be “mindful of students’ ability to be very critical on some topics — for example if this would impact their future careers or if they think that this may be the case”. 

As George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language reminds us, the defence of the indefensible is rarely attempted without recourse to euphemism and cloudy vagueness. 

News of Michelle’s ordeal at the hands of UCL’s bottom-line-fixated administrators comes as Britain’s research-intensive universities face renewed scrutiny over their heavy dependence on income from Chinese student ‘consumers’.

UK universities have become increasingly reliant on attracting higher-paying international students over recent years, in large part because tuition fees for UK students have risen by only £250 since David Cameron’s government raised the cap to £9,000 a year in 2012. Inevitably, inflation has done its attritional work, slowly eroding real-term value — according to analysis by consultancy firm dataHE, for instance, domestic fees are now worth just £6,500 in 2012 prices.

Even in the context of “top-up” government grants which amount to around £1,150 per student per year for most courses, universities in England are now making an average loss of £2,500 for every home student they educate. According to Universities UK, that equates to losses of around £1 billion each year across the sector.

The situation is all the more acute at prestigious Russell Group universities, where a higher proportion of the degrees on offer vis-a-vis other institutions involve “high cost” STEM subjects, on which the losses accrued per fee-paying domestic taught student are more substantial.    

Vice-Chancellors at prestigious, high-tariff institutions have sought to leverage their global reputation

Faced with the prospect of having to dip into their financial reserves to stave off financial disaster, Vice-Chancellors at prestigious, high-tariff institutions have sought to leverage their global reputation, shifting recruitment pronouncedly towards international students, who typically pay two to three times the fees of home-grown students — at the most selective campuses, the average tuition fee for international students is now £23,750 a year.

Among this group of institutions, higher fee payers now account for 23.5 per cent of students, having remained at about 14 per cent until 2017. 

In 2021-22, for instance, the number of overseas students studying at UK universities reached 679,970. This was a new record, and represented 24 per cent of the total student population. Of that total, 120,140 were from the EU, while 559,825 were from elsewhere. Twenty-seven per cent of the non-EU students, or 151,690 pupils, were from China — that’s an increase of 186% on 2011, when there were just 53,000 Chinese students studying in the UK. 

In other words, hundreds of thousands of students from countries like India, Nigeria, and China, are now propping up university finances, effectively subsidising loss-making domestic students’ degrees — so much so, in fact, that according to the Telegraph, universities are considering offering fewer places to British students to accommodate more of this high profit margin international demand. 

Of the 18 higher education institutions with the most Chinese students on campus in the 2021-22 academic year, 17 were members of the Russell Group. According to a report from the Policy Institute at King’s College London last year, nine of those Russell Group universities had more than 5,000 students from China, while one institution — Michelle Shipworth’s employer, UCL — had more than 10,000 Chinese students, which represents roughly a quarter of its 44,000-strong student body.

So far, so bottom-line swelling, you might think. But as critics of this “overseas pivot” have long pointed out, increased reliance on fees from non-UK students in some English university’s business plans in fact poses a ticking-time-bomb style risk to their financial sustainability. 

In May 2023, the Office for Students (OfS) raised the alarm over the risks faced by some universities in the event of a sudden drop in demand from students from China. Susan Lapworth, the chief executive of the OfS, subsequently wrote to 23 higher education providers that it identified as having high levels of recruitment of students from China, urging them to ensure they had contingency plans in case recruitment patterns change and there is a sudden drop in income from overseas students. Would it surprise you to learn that one of those institutions was UCL?  

The OfS was “concerned”, Ms Lapworth said, that while international students “bring enormous economic, cultural and educational benefits to higher education in England … some universities have become too reliant on fee income from international students, with students from one country sometimes a significant part of the financial model.”

As if on cue, data released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) just a few months later revealed that applications by Chinese students to UK universities for 2023-24 entrance had fallen by 2.2 per cent compared to the same time last year, and that out of this smaller pool of potential recruits, the number of students accepting firm offers from universities had fallen by 17.5 per cent. These “surprising” figures prompted the organisation’s chief executive, Clare Marchant, to declare that British universities may have reached “peak China” (Times).

Sector experts have cited geopolitical tensions between China and the West as one explanation for this steep decline in Chinese student applications. As a response to rising geopolitical stresses and heightened national security concerns, the UK in particular has recently hardened its stance towards China. Speaking at the end of last year’s G7 summit in Japan, Rishi Sunak described the country as “increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad”, and “the biggest challenge to global security and prosperity.”

Although he stopped short of calling for the “decoupling” between China and the West advocated by China sceptics in his own party, he said he supported “de-risking”, the expression ultimately used by G7 leaders in their joint communique. 

Despite all the diplomatic tiptoeing around the issue, the Prime Minister’s underlying message was clear: the “risks” China poses to British institutions, including universities, are very far from being just financial.

As long ago as 2019, for instance, the Times was reporting that British intelligence agencies were “concerned that a reliance on Chinese money and students, particularly postgraduates paying up to £50,000 a year in fees, was making some universities particularly vulnerable [to influence and interference by the Chinese government]”.

Then there’s the pressure exerted on Chinese students themselves

Last year, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s China report also warned that the CCP is actively seeking to exert control and influence over the UK’s higher education sector through student fees. According to written evidence from one anonymised source the Committee spoke to, it does so “by threatening to withdraw scholarships or funding for Chinese nationals in the UK”.

Then there’s the pressure exerted on Chinese students themselves.

One of the CCP’s primary means for monitoring and controlling the behaviour of Chinese students is its network of over 90 Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) in the UK, one of which is based at UCL.

Prof Steve Tang, the Director of the SOAS China Institute, recently pointed out that while CSSAs have a welfare function, providing practical advice to students on living and studying in their host country, they are also used by the Chinese state to monitor students and to exert influence over their behaviour. In his evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry on China, Prof Tang elaborated, saying: “The student bodies are infiltrated … there are meetings that happen through the middle of the night and the following morning some Chinese students can get rung up by somebody at the cultural or education section of the embassy to ask them: why did you say that? Why did you do that?” 

The result, according to Prof Tang, is that a culture of fear and suspicion has sprung up among Chinese students in the UK. “We are seeing that… in the class where there is only one Chinese student, that Chinese student usually engages in discussions and debates much more openly than in a class that has quite a few Chinese, [where] they don’t know who [if anyone] is going to report on them,” he added.

It’s interesting in this light to look again at Michelle Shipworth’s case, and reflect on the fact that the Chinese student who complained about the “horrible provocation” of a seminar that dared to broach the topic of modern slavery in China decided that rather than making his displeasure known privately, at a later date, and in a one-to-one setting, he would do so publicly, during the session, and while other Chinese students were present.

Speaking about the incident later, Michelle recalls that the student “said in a fairly cross tone — I wouldn’t even describe it as angry — something along the lines of: ‘Why are you using such a horrible provocation?’”

Was it anger behind those words, one wonders, or an assemblage of other, far more complex, subtle, and compelled emotions?

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