Beijing ‘could limit student flow’ if Truss labels China a threat

Researchers ‘may avoid’ bilateral projects over scrutiny concerns if PM escalates China’s status, scholars caution

September 12, 2022
Downing Street
Source: iStock

Liz Truss’ plan to label China a national security threat could cause serious damage to Sino-UK research ties and student flows, academics have warned.

The Times reported last month during the Conservative leadership campaign that Ms Truss, now the UK’s prime minister, planned to reopen the “integrated review” of British diplomacy and defence priorities to change China’s classification from “systemic competitor” to the more serious “threat” – a move that would put it on equal footing with Russia.

If it goes forward, the shift could prompt Beijing to limit numbers of UK-bound Chinese students, who make up the country’s largest overseas cohort, academics warned.

“Though it is difficult to see how the label would translate into policy, I predict the Chinese government would discourage students [and] researchers [from coming] to the UK for overseas studies [or] research,” said Ka Ho Mok, vice-president of Lingnan University Hong Kong.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, agreed that while it was not certain what the effects of such a policy would be, they would not bode well for universities.

“The Truss statement is unwise and misses the point,” he said. “It is not specific in terms of what it means and what the implications are for UK institutions, including HE institutions. No such details [have] been provided or even outlined. But it will catch the imagination of the Chinese party-state, which will respond negatively.”

Professor Tsang said that instead he would like to see the new prime minister make a commitment to “define a clear China strategy”.

“China clearly matters to the UK, one way or the other…If a country is a security threat to one, it does not mean that one does not engage with that country,” he said, adding that “an imperative of the UK government seeing China as a threat should require a substantial investment by the government to promote the understanding and study of China and Chinese policies”.  

A move to redefine China’s status could affect thousands of research projects, with UK academic publication with Chinese co-authors soaring from just 750 in 2000 to 16,267 papers in 2019 – comprising 11 per cent of the UK’s total research output, according to a recent study.

The Westminster government is proposing that English universities should have to report foreign funding of more than £75,000 to the sector regulator, the Office for Students, under an amendment to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

Researchers worried that further policy shifts could put projects with Chinese funding under the magnifying glass, making some scholars reluctant to take part.

“While this does not stop universities and researchers from engaging in partnerships in China, extra steps like this one and the possibility of added scrutiny are project risks that would discourage some researchers from entering into agreements with Chinese-linked research funders,” said Miguel Lim, senior lecturer in education at the University of Manchester.

He noted that the European Union recently relabelled China from a “partner” to “rival” country but said that the UK stance would take this a step further.

“A Truss-led government would need to tread carefully as the term ‘threat’ might appear to be a more provocative label than ‘rival,’” said Dr Lim.

The effect on student mobility was “more difficult” to predict, he said, but Chinese students in science and technology fields, particularly those with possible links to the Chinese military, could face additional scrutiny.

“This will involve a small number of students relative to the overall number from China but could still result in a perception that the UK is becoming unwelcoming for Chinese students,” Dr Lim said.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles