The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Time to take the issue of China into our hands

by Paul Temple

Before it was transferred to The British Museum in 2009, the Percival David collection of Chinese porcelain was displayed in one of the Bloomsbury houses of the University of London, on the corner of Gordon Square. I once asked the SOAS curator for an idea of how important the collection was: he considered for a moment and then said that the only comparable one was in the Summer Palace in Beijing.

I thought about this when reading the recent HEPI report, UK Universities and China, which, perhaps naturally enough, is located in the here-and-now in terms of Sino-British university relations. But we should recall that China has been on the agenda for British universities from at least the late nineteenth-century, with SOAS’s predecessor, the School of Oriental Studies, being founded in 1916.

What new insights on this long-standing relationship does this HEPI collection of essays offer? It almost seems as if the editor provided his authors with a template for their chapters on the lines of:

  1. Remind readers of China’s growing global importance economically and in scientific research.
  2. Mention China’s ancient cultural traditions; more recently, changes within China from the 1980s gave some cause for optimism.
  3. Unfortunately though, Xi Jinping has not turned out to be the enlightened social democratic leader we had hoped for.
  4. In particular, nasty things seem to be happening in Xinjiang, and Hong Kong’s future doesn’t look too bright either.
  5. Meanwhile, many western universities have allowed themselves to become dependent on Chinese money: who knew?
  6. Even so, we must defend our academic values of free speech and fearless investigation, even at the cost of upsetting President Xi.
  7. Problem is, how to reconcile (5) and (6): no easy answers – or actually answers of any sort.
  8. So UK universities maybe need to develop a common strategy towards China. No, seriously.

Does this list – which is of course completely unfair to the authors involved – depress you as much as it depresses me? The essential tension that underlies most of the chapters is that between (5) and (6) in my list – acknowledged more by some authors than others. How have we got ourselves into this situation?

In an SRHE blog of mine which appeared in December 2019, I charted the way public policies in Britain had shifted in the post-war decades from central planning models – whether in utilities, transport, health, education at all levels, and more – to market-based models. Our present “China syndrome” in universities is a direct result of this policy shift: British governments and universities have created the problem – it is not simply because of the global geopolitical changes described by several of the authors here.

It is noteworthy that all the authors in the HEPI study appear to take it for granted that UK universities (actually, the chapter on Australian universities by Salvatore Babones paints an even more concerning picture of the situation there) must receive income from Chinese student fees to survive. But it wasn’t like this once, and doesn’t have to be like it now. This is a recent development: if say twenty years ago you had predicted that British university teachers would soon routinely be lecturing to majority-Chinese classes of maybe a hundred students, people would have thought you were crazy. This situation has arisen entirely because universities were instructed by successive governments to behave as if they were commercial entities, seeking to maximise income from all possible sources, seemingly regardless of the risks involved.

When universities and the then polytechnics were funded through central planning models they did of course admit students from abroad, but in limited numbers. There was no financial incentive to expand numbers, and the planning models assumed certain total student numbers that were funded from various public sources. In some places, international students were in effect funded partially by the host university, after the Thatcher government stopped public funding of their fees in 1980. The assumption until then was that Britain had a responsibility to help poorer countries by providing subsidised education to their nationals and that there would be long-term benefits all round as a result. I’m not arguing that this was a perfect model – simply that there are alternatives to the present arrangements, that once upon a time did actually work.

Don’t get me wrong: China is a fascinating place and I’ve been privileged to meet many Chinese academics in their own universities and to teach Chinese students in London. I’m all in favour of engagement with Chinese peoples and their cultures. But if the nature of British universities is going to change as a result of this engagement, then there should be a frank and open discussion about it. It should not be allowed to happen as if by accident.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at