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MP Says UK University Reliance On China Is Not "Ideal" In Volatile Geopolitical Landscape

(Alamy)

6 min read

Labour chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Students Paul Blomfield has said the government's immigration policy could leave UK universities over-reliant on Chinese student fees, leaving them in a less than "ideal" situation as a result of global tensions with China.

From January 2024, new Government rules will prevent some postgraduate international students from bringing dependents to the UK with them. But there is concern that because Chinese students – who contribute the majority of UK universities' international fees – are considered to be less vulnerable to the policy, universities could become more dependent on the income from China in the coming years.

The proposals are particularly expected to hit students from countries where larger families are common, such as India and Nigeria. Whereas because China introduced a one-child policy in 1979 to slow population growth, people from the country wishing to study in the UK may have fewer dependents and are less likely to be deterred by the policy. The average size of a household in China was 2.77, according to Statista, while statistics from Global Data found the typical household size of an Indian family was 4.44.

Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central, told PoliticsHome it was not "ideal" for one country to dominate international student numbers in Britain.

“It's no surprise that postgraduate students from countries like India and Nigeria have more dependents than those from China where students are more likely to be single and issues like the former 'one child' policy contribute to a different culture," he said.

“It's not ideal that one country dominates the international student community from their own point of view or for others, nor is it good for our universities because there’s always the potential for them to pull the plug at any time."

In recent years, concern over government and business links with China has been heightened as a result of human rights abuses and tensions over Hong Kong and Taiwan, leading to a number of MPs calling for a greater caution. 

"It's a risk, for example, if China acted on some of its threats against Taiwan and democratic nations retaliated with significant consequences for our relations," Blomfield continued. 

“Our campuses are better places because of international recruitment; it's great for UK students to have the opportunity to study alongside those from so many countries bringing different perspectives and insight."

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency found more than 150,000 Chinese students signed up to UK university courses in 2021/22 compared to just under 90,000 in 2014-15.

Chinese students make up the largest cohort of international students compared to 126,535 students from India, 32,945 from Nigeria, 23,075 from Pakistan and 22,990 from the United States, according to Universities UK.

Last year 135,788 visas were given to foreign students' dependents. Almost 500,000 student visas were given out in that time period, marking a 750 per cent increase from three years ago.

Research has suggested overseas students are a net benefit to the UK economy after bringing in £41.9billion in 2021/22 to the UK economy.

Although there is wide recognition of this economic benefit, there remains concern that higher education institutions are becoming increasingly reliant on money from China. 

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Alicia Kearns told PoliticsHome she believed it was brilliant "UK students have the opportunity to study alongside those from different countries".

However, she claimed there was a risk that if geo-political tensions faltered between the UK and China, they had the potential to "switch the tap off", if, for example, "China fulfilled some of the threats against Taiwan and democratic nations decided to do some retaliation on this".

“The possible implications of these changes to international student visas are concerning," she explained. 

"I have long argued that academia must stop behaving as if it operates free of geopolitics. 

“As the recent Intelligence and Security Committee report on China set out in worrying detail, Beijing is carrying out concerted efforts to acquire UK intellectual property, technology and data.

"We therefore must not allow our universities to become more dependent on China for overseas students. This is yet another vulnerability created by the lack of public cross-government China strategy.”

A recent example of when a relationship broke down between a Western ally and The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was when diplomatic ties thawed between China and Australia. 

In 2018, China criticised the Australian Government after it banned Chinese tech company Huawei from the 5G network. The CCP responded by introducing trade barriers on Australian products. 

Since the trade war began the number of Chinese students who enrolled at Australian universities fell from 164,000 in 2019 to 116,000 in 2022, according to Statista. However, this sudden drop was also affected by the pandemic, after Australia imposed some of the strictest travel restrictions across the Western world. 

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), said international students have brought “enormous economic, cultural and educational benefits" to higher education in England, but that "some universities have become too reliant on fee income from international students”.

“Universities must know what they would do if international recruitment fails to meet expectations. We have recently written to a number of institutions to ensure they are alert to this risk, and have credible contingency plans in place to protect them from the consequences of a sudden reduction in their income.”

An investigation in The Times found more than 40 universities have collaborated with institutions that have been linked to malign activities of the Chinese state.

Many of the links are claimed to pose no risk to the individual universities. Research from Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank, found in the past five years 42 arrangements had been made which were a cause for concern. 

UK relations with China over the past ten years have dramatically changed. In 2015, former prime minister David Cameron and CCP leader Xi Jinping sat down in Buckinghamshire and shared a drink together in a British pub. Cameron claimed it marked a "new golden era" in relations between the two countries. 

However, since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the UK and China have clashed over Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and the tech giant Huawei. 

A House of Lords report found China could pose a threat over "cyber attacks" and espionage. Last year at a NATO summit, a declaration stated China sought to "undermine the rules-based international order."

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also said China planned to reshape the "world order". He has previously said the UK must be "smart and sophisticated" in its approach to working with Beijing on global issues such as climate change. 

Despite recently rowing back on the comment, Sunak has previously called China the UK's largest threat. 

A Department for Education spokesperson said Britain is still committed to attracting the "brightest students from around the world" and claimed they enhance the UK's "soft power" and global reach.

"Domestic students continue to make up the vast majority of students within our universities," they said.

“We remain committed to attracting the brightest students from around the world, who by coming here provide significant economic growth, expertise for our international research, and increase the UKs soft-power around the world – with 55 of the current and recent world leaders having been educated here.”

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