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Government urged to give clearer guidance to UK universities on China engagement

Efforts to reduce UK universities’ dependence on China have in some cases stalled or reversed, a report led by a former minister has warned.

Diversifying the international student population at British universities was an “essential” risk-reduction strategy but there was not a simple solution, a paper by the Policy Institute at King’s College London suggested.

The report – led by former universities minister Lord Jo Johnson – warned that geographical diversification had reduced for many universities, leaving them “reliant on a very small number of markets”.

The challenges of “de-risking” higher education and research engagement with China were “considerable”, the report warned.

China has become the world’s largest spender on research and development and UK universities benefit from the higher tuition fees paid by Chinese students, the paper highlighted.

The report calls on the Government to provide clearer guidance to universities on how to manage their research engagement with China “in a period of increasing geopolitical instability”.

It comes as some Tory MPs have been pushing Rishi Sunak to label China as a “threat” to the UK following the arrest of a parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for Beijing.

Chinese students make up the largest group of international students at English universities, followed by students from India and Nigeria.

The report suggested that the proportion of UK higher education institutions sourcing at least half of their master’s students from just one country had increased from 22% in 2017/18 to 38% in 2021/22.

In 2021/22, one-fifth of UK higher education institutions hosted over four-fifths of the overall Chinese students in full-time education.

The proportion of Chinese full-time doctoral entrants had increased significantly over the past five years, from 17% in 2017/18 to 28% in 2021/22, even if they had declined in number in the most recent data, according to the report.

The paper called on universities to publish an annual statement on their international student recruitment plans to provide greater visibility of strategies to diversify the international student population.

Lord Johnson, a visiting professor at the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said: “The sector continues to follow a ‘cross your fingers’ strategy that decoupling is in the future never necessary for China, in the same ways it was for relations with Russia in February 2022. The China question therefore to a great degree remains unanswered.

“The Government must urgently help universities with a framework for how to maximise the benefits from research collaboration and student and academic mobility, while managing the downsides, including the risks to national security from bad-faith actors and the dangers of over-reliance on a single country.”

Lord Johnson, a brother of former prime minister Boris Johnson, was universities and science minister until September 2019.

In May, the Office for Students (OfS) warned that an over-reliance on tuition fees from overseas students – especially those from a single country such as China – was a financial risk for English universities.

The OfS wrote to 23 institutions with high levels of student recruitment from China to ensure they had contingency plans to protect them from any possible drop in income from overseas students.

Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) data, released in January, showed that there were 124,370 Chinese students at English institutions in 2021/22. The figure included postgraduate and part-time students.

On Tuesday, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that 601,000 international students were in the UK in 2021 – second only to the United States.

The report found that 57% of all mobile students across the OECD and its partner countries in 2021 were from Asia – the largest group of all.

It found 60% of all mobile students in the UK came from Asia.

A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “The UK is one of the most popular destinations for international students, and this brings huge benefits to our universities and our communities.

“But it is important for universities, and for the student experience, that we host students from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds.

“This is why diversifying the international student community is a priority for the sector, and progress has been made since 2019.

“It is in our collective interest to ensure that students who choose the UK know they will receive a high-quality education and that our public and political stakeholders have confidence in our approach to recruitment.

“This means that universities must recognise and respond to the political concerns that have come to the fore in recent months.

“This is why we are supporting the development and uptake of good practice, for example through our recent report on diversification and through implementation of the Agent Quality Framework.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “We remain committed to attracting the brightest students from around the world, and the contribution they make both culturally and economically to our country.

“Universities are well aware of the possible risks associated with dependence on a single source of funding, whether that is from a single organisation or from a single nation.

“The Government’s International Education Strategy makes clear that universities must ensure they have appropriate processes in place to manage risks and a diverse student recruitment base is key to this.”