UK ‘risks missing boat’ when China reopens relations post-Covid

For collaborations to succeed, institutions ‘need to tackle’ underlying problems of uneven funding between countries

十一月 29, 2022
Kowloon, Hong Kongaa March 15 2013 Passenger Ferry to China leaves Kowloon terminal, Hong Kong on March 15th, 2013
Source: iStock

There is a risk the UK could fall behind in establishing research collaborations with Chinese institutions even as other European nations gain ground, academics have warned.

In a discussion on UK-China relations at the British Council’s Going Global conference in Singapore, scholars expressed concern over the UK’s sluggish approach to building up its China ties.

It is only a matter of time before international relations restart anew after the pandemic slowdown, said Mike Shipton, dean of biomedical sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

“Are we prepared for when things do open up more easily…if we’re not prepared, we could miss the boat,” he said, noting China’s “pent-up demand” for postgraduate and PhD mobility.

Others are also worried.

Daniel Brooker, director of UK Research and Innovation in China, said that institutional partners with which his agency works have also been expressing “genuine concern” about falling behind – even as countries including the US and Germany have made headway on their collaborations with Chinese institutions.

“If we’re not engaging, we’ll lose the leverage we’ve built up over the years,” Dr Brooker warned.

Still, there are hopes that China’s easing of lockdown measures – when it does eventually come – could bring renewed dialogue.

“One of the frustrating things about Covid is we were not able to have any high-level bilateral dialogues,” said Matt Burney, director of the British Council in China.

He expressed hope that there would be a “significant” bilateral summit in early 2023. “I think [it] will be a catalytic moment for education,” he said.

Sue Welburn, executive dean at the Zhejiang Edinburgh Institute, a joint venture between Zhejiang University and the University of Edinburgh, noted that it was “really good timing” to develop partnerships, with US geopolitics forcing many Chinese academics – who already have strong international ties and English language skills – back to China.

“If we want to be smart, we want to start engaging much more proactively,” she said.

But she said that for partnerships to succeed, institutions would have to tackle underlying problems that hinder more equitable collaborations, including vastly uneven resources between academic partners.

“The balance is just so skewed,” she said, noting that split funding models the UK has with many other countries don’t work with China, which has a vastly different and complex system of grant funding.

“If you’re going to set up a partnership with someone with 10 times as much money as you have, some matching just not going to cut it,” she said.



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