Education Relations of UK-China ‘Strong as Ever’

According to the British Council, UK institutions must prepare to reengage with Chinese counterparts and recognize the growing relevance of collaboration.

The request comes after the UK prime leader warned earlier this week that the ‘golden period’ of relations with the country was ended.

“We’re taking a longer-term view on China, strengthening our resilience and protecting our economic security. Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘golden era’ is over,” said UK prime minister Rishi Sunak to the attendees at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, adding that the UK’s attitude to China will ‘evolve.’

It will emphasize ‘robust pragmatism,’ and the UK would seek to strengthen ties with ‘like-minded allies all across the world.’

The unexpected statement could have been more intense, according to Matt Burney, director of the British Council in China.

“It’s quite useful really for Rishi Sunak to draw a line under it by talking in terms of ‘robust pragmatism.’ This is a lot more helpful – and meaningful in terms of safe engagement – than some of the rhetoric that could have been used around, for example, defining China as purely a threat,” said Matt Burney, British Council China director.

The period under former Prime Minister David Cameron, who ruled the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2016, is commonly regarded as the golden age of relations.

According to Burney, several aspects of the bilateral relationship are now stronger. Political ties have typically been ‘episodic,’ but the education relationship is not.

“I point you to the education relationship, which is as strong as ever… [We have] to be really very careful about defining our bilateral relationship purely through the lens of political rhetoric. We’ve got to look at the UK-China relationship beyond the political. When we look at it through the lens of trade and of culture and education and the people-to-people side of things, it’s actually as strong as ever it’s been,” he said.

In a session at the British Council’s Going Global conference in Singapore, Daniel Brooker, Director of UK Research Innovation in China, agreed that the rhetoric needed to be decoupled from reality.

He said, “It’s important often just to remind people around the statistics of why our relationship with China, certainly from our research, is too important to ignore, too big to fail. China is now a science superpower, it’s the world’s second biggest spender on R&D, it has 25% of the world’s R&D workforce. It has spent heavily on increasing its research budgets over the last 5-10 years. It’s already reaching its 2.4% target, percent of GDP, which is the UK aspiration.”

According to a rough assessment by the British Council, Chinese students would contribute £5.4 billion to the UK economy in tuition and living expenditures alone by 2021, according to Leina Shi, director of education, China.

She said, “Data shows that the overall pie for Chinese students studying abroad is shrinking. However, the UK has really proved popular above our weight, so actually, our number of inbound students from China has been increasing, but on the price of perhaps some of our other competitors.”

Burney added, “It would be naive to think that China is risk-free. Our interlocutors are keen to remain as apolitical as possible.”

Shi stated that now is the time for UK universities to ‘really get China-ready’ and establish the institutional capacity to collaborate.

“This is an opportunity to really get smart in working with China… [and] for universities to build up their own expertise to understand how to work with China. The most important [thing] is to recognize China’s strengths as a collaborator for research. The rise of China in the world rankings of universities presents valuable opportunities in postgraduate and research collaborations for UK universities. I think the next era is moving from student recruitment into research collaboration.”

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