China could be vulnerable to "educational dumping" by overseas universities seeking to exploit the rapid expansion of higher education in the country, a leading vice-chancellor has said.
Drummond Bone, chairman of Universities UK, was speaking to Times Higher Education before travelling to China with the Prime Minister last week.
As vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, Professor Bone has direct experience of operating in China. Liverpool set up a new university in collaboration with Xi'an Jiaotong University in 2006.
He said Chinese universities could learn from the experience of their UK counterparts in developing links with business, but warned they must not be underestimated. "Anything that suggests patronage is totally inappropriate," he warned.
He said his visit, and Liverpool's Chinese venture, were genuine attempts to improve co-operation, but said China was wary about diluting quality or losing its identity.
"China clearly has concerns about being seen as a country where there might be the danger of educational dumping ... I think they're understandably concerned about preserving their own cultural identity as well," he said. "This is one of the problems about the globalisation of education in general, and even in the UK we might feel under a bit of a threat. No country wants to feel the cultural integrity or the quality of its own education system is being undermined by overseas providers who might not be quite so careful about standards. So when there's a sudden expansion of education, governments and people can get nervous."
Asked about potential barriers to the rapid expansion of China's higher education sector, Professor Bone said the problems it faced were not dissimilar to those in the UK.
"China has to wrestle with the same problems that we do, making people understand that there's no way back, that the future economy will need a higher and higher proportion of people trained to university level," he said.
"In the transition, there's always the worry about whether we are producing too many graduates and whether there are going to be graduate-level jobs for all these people.
"We know in the UK that the graduate premium is continuing to rise, and I'm sure that will be the case in China long term as well, but there will always be fears that there could be an overproduction."