Entering the dragon

May 7, 1999

British academics are struggling to catch up with their US and Australian rivals in the race to exploit a potentially lucrative Chinese market opening up to the West. Harriet Swain reports

China does not have a good history with foreigners. From the opium wars of the early 19th century, to the loss of Korea and Taiwan to Japan and the Japanese invasion of 1937, the Chinese have had an uneasy relationship with outsiders. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when universities across China were closed and millions killed in the revolutionary fervour of Mao Zedong, did not help. Nor did the killing, ten years ago in Tiananmen Square, of students protesting against the government.

But in the past few years, under president Jiang Zemin, China has begun to recognise that if it is to pursue its new policy of development and openness it needs expert help. And universities are at the forefront of the change.

Academics and students, a group naturally open to ideas, have already been working with colleagues in the East, especially in science, building up relationships. Foreign governments have discovered they need China too. Fierce competition has developed among countries wanting access to a relatively untapped market of more than a billion people.

For them, and for many private companies, universities are providing both advice on how to operate in China and a practical route into the country.

The United States and Australia are already making inroads into Chinese academia at a much faster rate than the United Kingdom. This prompted prime minister Tony Blair to announce on his visit to China last autumn a review of arrangements for foreign students to make it easier for them to study in Britain. He also launched a computer link between Janet, the UK's university network, and the Chinese Education Research Network.

Further opportunities for working with Chinese universities are likely to flourish after the Chinese government passed a law in January that devolves to the provinces responsibility for deciding universities' standards of entry, recruitment of staff, development of international links and issuing of degrees. The law also paves the way for "other social forces" - potentially private businesses - to become involved in universities, which will be able to supplement their resources through their own fundraising.

This has created a need for management expertise, which the Higher Education Funding Council for England is helping to meet, in conjunction with the British Council. In July, China's minister of education will visit Britain to discuss potential links between universities and industry, and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is planning a follow-up visit next year. David Tupman, policy adviser at the CVCP, says: "China is regarded as the key developing market internationally. Commercial reasons are the driving force."

The Chinese market is estimated to be worth about Pounds 2 billion per year in terms of British exports and joint-venture programmes, and this is likely to increase tenfold by 2002. David Kirby, dean of Middlesex University Business School, predicts that the Chinese economy will become one of the key world economic influences in the next ten years.

Hefce is about to ask for bids from universities for a Pounds 1 million programme to enhance Chinese studies, particularly at postgraduate level, following a demand for young people who are better educated about China.

Meanwhile, about 6,000 Chinese students are studying in the UK compared with 2,000 just three years ago, and numbers are rising. Particularly noticeable is the increase in students funding themselves for qualifications such as MBAs, rather than being funded by companies. "There is more money around in China now and people have a greater ability to get passports to study abroad," says Gordon Slaven, education officer at the British Council in Beijing.

British education is seen as an expensive high-quality option by the Chinese, but it could become cheaper under proposed legislation, which would make it possible for overseas students to take part-time jobs here, as they do in the US.

Under China's new law, the mission of universities changes from the "cultivation of knowledge" to the "cultivation of talents and creativity" - a major difference in a culture that has traditionally treated the teacher as guru.

"China is going headlong into the future," Slaven says. "In the next ten years it is going to be a very different place."

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