Post-Brexit Britain: Educating China

All of Britain’s bowler-hatted, tea-sipping cliches are well-received in China, where the popularity of Downtown Abbey and Sherlock have helped cultivate the impression that Brits all possess a distinguished 绅士风度 (gentlemanly manner).

This elitist national branding has helped Harrow set up shop in Shanghai and it’s convinced thousands of Chinese parents to send their kids to private schools in England. It’s also created the conditions for British etiquette schools like Seatton to coach Chinese businessmen on their table manners.

This public school image seems to have less of an effect when it comes to higher education. The Chinese send many more university age students to study in the US than to the UK, and the super rich recognise that American colleges top the global league tables. But Britain doesn’t lag far behind the US, and we’re number one for Master’s degrees, with over 40% of Chinese students choosing to study for an MA in the UK.

China is incredibly important to universities’ balance sheets, sending more overseas students to study in the UK than any other country.

In 2011/12, there were 29,900 Indian overseas students enrolled in UK universities, making India the second most common country of origin for international students. By 2015/16 this figure had fallen to 16,745. Meanwhile, China remained number one supplier of foreign tuition fees, with student numbers increasing from 78,715 in 2011/12 to 91,215 in 2015/16.

Universities UK estimate that international students injected £25.8 billion into the UK economy in 2014/15. Given that this was 80% the work of non-EU students, and that more than 20% of all international students are from China, it’s fair to conclude that Chinese money makes up a considerable proportion of that figure.

So it’s no surprise that the UK’s higher education sector is said to be sharing in the “golden era” of UK-China relations.

We shouldn’t make the age-old mistake of assuming that the Chinese market is inexhaustible, but it’s reasonable to assume that the trajectory has some upward momentum in it yet. The British Council’s projection puts the increase in Chinese higher education students at a healthy 44% over the next decade.

Where does Brexit come in?

When writing about the impact of Brexit on UK-China relations, there often seem to be two separate considerations. Firstly, how Brexit might affect the UK-China status quo, and secondly, what opportunities Brexit itself might bring to the table.

With regards to the first consideration, it seems unlikely that Brexit itself will radically affect the choice of Chinese students when it comes to studying abroad, although a depreciating pound might attract thrifty parents in the short term.

In the long term, Brexit might affect Britain’s general economic health, having knock on effects for the UK’s appeal as a study destination. But whether you foresee economic ruin, or the UK’s triumphant emergence as “Global Britain”, the resolution of this debate depends very much upon which pro/anti-Brexit camp you belong to.

For universities, the big Brexit concern is obviously the status of EU students. Although all EU students pay the same lower tuition fees as UK domiciles, 30% of all international students are from the EU. The status of anything post B-day is unclear, but it is reasonable to assume that higher fees will see many more European students choosing to remain within the EU.

It’s also worth considering the status of EU teaching staff and the significant loss of EU funding post-Brexit. According to Full Fact, UK universities currently receive 16% of their research funding from the EU.

With this shortfall in mind, some (the Confederation of British industry for example) have advised UK universities to look towards China after Brexit.

Throughout our post-Brexit articles (on trade and investment), this has been a constant theme. With an optimistic spin, it’s “Global Britain” logic: we turn away from our continental brethren, towards the wider world, with Chinese capital presenting a key opportunity. More cynically, China represents an area of potential growth that might mitigate against the severity of Brexit fallout.

According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), links between UK and Chinese universities are already ‘some of the most well-developed and innovative that exist between our countries’. Now, during this period of ‘golden era’ relations and economic uncertainty, is the perfect time to deepen collaboration.

The demand for higher education amongst young Chinese is growing, and so is their spending power. Professor Salvatore Babones, China expert at the University of Syndey, told me that the UK has so far ‘missed out’ on ‘fee-paying Chinese students’. This is because ‘UK universities are currently forced to admit all EU nationals on the same terms as local students’. According to Babones, ‘anti-Brexit UK universities’ will soon ‘be rubbing their hands together at the prospect of replacing subsidised EU students with full-fee-paying Chinese ones’.

Although EU citizens make up 30% of the UK’s pool of international students, it’s true that Chinese students, who make up 20%, pay up to three times as much as their EU counterparts.

But according to Dr. Igor Rogelja, another China expert teaching at King’s College London, this money-grabbing strategy comes with attendant dangers. Rogelja warns against the ‘commercialisation of British academia’ and the ‘transformation of higher education institutes into degree mills’. This warning is partly a principled objection to diluting academia’s critical value, but it also has an economic rationale.

Rogelja told me, "If Britain simply floods the Chinese market with its supply of UK degrees, surely the value of these will fall. What is the advantage in having a mass-produced degree from a third or even second-tier higher education institute in Britain, compared with one from a rising Chinese university?"

Brexit is threatening, or promising, to take British higher education in a more China-orientated direction, but it’s clear that we need to consider the consequences of pursuing an even more China-orientated solution to our potential Brexit problems.