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

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How are you today, on a scale of 0-10?

By Paul Temple

I do like a nice two-by-two matrix, don’t you? I’ve been told that they’re such a feature of teaching at Harvard Business School that the whiteboards there come with the gridlines ready-marked (that’s in the “too good to check” category, by the way, in case you’re a HBS alum). So my attention was immediately caught when I saw that Rachel Hewitt’s HEPI Policy Note on “Measuring well-being in higher education” (May 2019) featured one. One axis is “mental wellbeing” and the other is “mental ill-health”. This is interesting, implying that the two are entirely distinct categories, when I suspect that most people would assume that the one goes in step with the other. So the matrix quadrant of “optimal mental wellbeing” and “maximal mental ill-health” conjures up a consultation on the lines of:

Psychiatrist: “Good morning, how are you feeling today?”

Patient: “Absolutely great, thank you, doctor!”

Psychiatrist: “So, let’s continue our discussion of your feelings of worthlessness and alienation…”

I’m not saying that the two categories are not in fact separate – I don’t have the expertise to make a claim either way – but the HEPI note, saying that mental ill-health requires “dedicated interventions” whereas lack of wellbeing needs “generalised resources”, doesn’t help me much in grasping the distinction being drawn here. The HEPI note then encourages universities to measure wellbeing so that “we can better understand the long-term trends in the health of those in the higher education sector” with a view to reducing “the likelihood of mental illness”. So the two are it seems, after all, linked in some way. There goes the nice two-by-two matrix then, if mental wellbeing and mental health are actually on a continuum.

So what about measuring wellbeing? There’s a good bit of this going on, by ONS (“On a scale of 0 to 10, how anxious did you feel yesterday?”) and the Student Academic Experience Survey, with an impressive sample size of 14,000. This apparently produced in 2017 a positive response to a “Life worthwhile?” question from just 19% of students – a figure which the HEPI note doesn’t seem to think worth remarking on. Are we really saying that only 19% of students think that their lives are worthwhile? This deeply implausible finding – which might perhaps be explained by respondents interpreting the question as something like, “Could your life be improved in same way?” – is thrown into even greater doubt when it turns out that the DLHE data for graduates has 80% of them answering “high” or “very high” to a “Life worthwhile?” question (and most of the rest give a “medium” answer).

“Not everyone”, goes on the HEPI note, “is keen on the increased collection of well-being measures.” Well, no, if the data are as all over the place as these are. But one key reason apparently given for not collecting wellbeing data is a concern that universities will then be judged on a measure over which they have no control. True, they do not have control over their students’ wellbeing, and nor should they have. Where is the evidence that students define themselves wholly as “students”, rather than individuals who happen to be students and a mass of other things besides? A negative answer to a wellbeing question could just as much reflect the breakup of a relationship, seeing Nigel Farage on TV, or watching Arsenal play, as it has to do with the university. The HEPI note argues the other way, saying that “We cannot make improvements in the delivery of higher education if we do not understand our weaknesses” – the assumption being that the factors that cause poor mental wellbeing are “weaknesses” to be found somewhere in the university, susceptible to management interventions. Universities can try to improve their NSS scores by providing feedback more promptly, or whatever, because students have themselves defined the problem precisely: “We want faster feedback”. No such precision can be available to help improve wellbeing, as your idea of wellbeing may be completely different to mine. Universities should instead do what they are supposed to do – using their resources to create a community which supports the best teaching and research that it can achieve – and allow students to build mental resilience in their own ways by drawing on the intellectual resources that should be on offer to them.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.