Global collaborations ‘bloody complicated’ as tensions spike

University leaders warn they often find themselves stuck between the US and China

四月 24, 2024
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Source: iStock/Profimaximus

International collaborations are “bloody complicated at the moment” amid rising geopolitical tensions, the Times Higher Education Europe Universities Summit has heard.

Speaking on a panel of sector leaders, Evelyn Welch, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, said that she had been “summoned by the deputy prime minister to be told how I should work with China or not”, adding: “I’d love to have a national government that said, ‘I like what you’re doing; here, have some more money to do it.’”

Professor Welch’s comments come after the UK’s deputy prime minister, Oliver Dowden, announced plans to convene a “round table of university vice-chancellors”, after expressing fears that universities’ dependence on overseas funding raised risks that they could be “influenced, exploited or even coerced” by hostile powers.

“[Partnerships are about] trying to embed a really long-term, deeply satisfying sense of meeting our mission as well as our bottom line. But it’s bloody complicated at the moment, particularly if you’re working internationally,” Professor Welch told the conference.

Appearing on the same panel, Chee Yeow Meng, vice-president for innovation and enterprise at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said Singaporean universities often found themselves caught between China and the US, amid fraught relations between the two superpowers.

Calling universities “the last bastion of hope for freedom and neutrality”, Professor Chee said: “We can try to balance our approach to the US-China rivalry, but it’s difficult…To the US, a balance is zero-China. To China, a balance is zero-US.”

His comments echoed those made by NUS president Tan Eng Chye in late 2022. “I think when two big countries, their political systems, [come] into tension, then universities like us, we are uncomfortably placed,” Professor Tan told Times Higher Education. “If you are a collaborator, you can sense the strain.”

Nevertheless, such difficulties could result in “opportunity for the rest of the world”, Professor Chee continued, by encouraging “diversification” in collaborations beyond the two superpowers. “It might not be that bad a thing,” he said.

University of Toronto provost Trevor Young said the funding his institution received from the US had previously resulted in “brutal” restrictions. “If you have [National Institutes of Health] funding, you have to meet certain criteria,” he said; for instance, the university was prohibited from using any Huawei equipment, resulting in “a big exercise for administrators”.

Like Professor Chee, Professor Young said the complexity of the China-US relationship offered “opportunity” for connections with other nations, citing Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines as areas for collaboration.



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