The Chinese government may be planning to encourage its universities to set up overseas, and the UK should “work hard” to attract these branch campuses, according to Lord Willetts.
Lord Willetts’ suggestion that Chinese universities may look to establish themselves overseas comes as the Westminster government aims to further open English higher education to new providers, via its White Paper and the Higher Education and Research Bill. Jo Johnson, the current universities and science minister, has suggested that overseas universities could be among those to enter the English sector.
Watch: interview with David Willetts
Lord Willetts, who as minister took part in UK trade delegations to China and India led by David Cameron, said: “I think we are going to start seeing Chinese universities setting up operations in the UK. The gossip is that there’s going to be a higher education White Paper from the Chinese government that will be more explicit about encouraging their universities to set up abroad.
“That’s a prize for us, but we must work hard for it. They may want to go to the US, they may want to go to the continent of Europe – it’s very important to get them to the UK.”
Any Chinese universities setting up in the UK would be “looking for academic partners”, he added.
Lord Willetts said that there would be “opportunities for British universities to help educate Chinese students when they are here, but still under the auspices of, and perhaps at the physical base belonging to, a Chinese university”.
Asked what the benefits of such ventures could be for Chinese universities, Lord Willetts replied that “they observe that Western universities set up branch campuses and, as China’s peaceful rise continues, they think they should be doing the same kinds of things as the West does.
“And of course, it’s another way of broadening your contacts and establishing permanent relationships with researchers from the West. It’s another way of giving your students the experience of being in the West.”
He added: “For the UK – I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for us. I’m sure that my successors in BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] would want to encourage it, and I just hope the Home Office will as well.”
The UK’s Home Office has been criticised by universities – and by some in government – for what they see as an overly restrictive stance on visas for non-EU students.
In general, Lord Willetts believes that there is a change in the relationship between Western and Asian universities.
“Historically, we’ve seen them [Asian nations] as a source of students – and I hope that will carry on and indeed there is potential to grow the British market for overseas students,” he said. “But that is only a small part of the relationship. What they are looking for is proper research links…that’s a fantastic area of expansion.”
Lord Willetts said that his experience was that Asian nations “were also interested in hearing how we could encourage more British students to come and study abroad. I know it’s tough, but anything that can be constructed, even if it’s just a term, so that a British student…has an experience in China – that massively enhances the credibility [of the UK] and the willingness to work with us.”