Professor tells universities to beware being 'sucked in' to agreements with Chinese. Melanie Newman reports.
British universities should stop viewing China "through rose-tinted spectacles" and see it as a major competitive threat, the founding head of Nottingham University's Chinese campus has warned.
In a report on China by the higher education think-tank Agora, Ian Gow, former provost of Nottingham University Ningbo, warns that China is "well on the way to becoming the new global hub for higher education".
"I am not saying that we should not get involved with China. However, British institutions must stop viewing this aggressively ambitious country through rose-tinted spectacles," he said.
Chinese universities are being instructed to teach in English, Professor Gow said. "This means foreign students can study in English in China much more cheaply than they could here in the UK." The country also wants to benefit from UK strengths in science and technology, he added. "Handing over our research in these key areas is incredibly naive."
Nottingham Ningbo was originally envisaged as a liberal arts college, but it is now shifting in the direction of science, in line with China's prioritising of the subject.
In a bid to further this agenda, Chinese authorities are making it harder for middle-ranking British universities to partner Chinese institutions, Professor Gow suggests. "There is evidence that only the top institutions will be allowed key strategic partnerships, and they will be urged to make all future partnerships with top 20 foreign institutions," he said.
His comments chime with those of Jiaan Cheng, former vice-president of Zhejiang University, who told a recent Worldwide Universities Network conference that "middle-class universities" were "coming to China looking for students". Those without impressive brand names will have to have something valuable to put on the negotiating table.
Professor Gow warned against rushing into the country without assessing the "very considerable risks".
"The Chinese no longer have to persuade; they seem to have everybody eating out of their hands. The pull factor is being replaced by a push ... But we are not thinking sufficiently about how to engineer a win-win situation: we are simply rushing to establish any sort of partnership.
"Unless emerging Sino-UK strategic alliances are better thought through, British higher education could be sorry."
Vice-chancellors and senior managers on trips to China were being wined and dined and given the impression that it was a wonderful place to work, when the reality was much tougher, he said.
Professor Gow warned managers against being "sucked in" and signing agreements too quickly. "Often when confronted with the next stage they will find the agreement has apparently changed," he said. "Partners are very adept at changing direction because 'Beijing said no'."
Agora's director, Anna Fazackerley, said: "Reportedly one UK vice- chancellor or pro vice-chancellor a week has been landing in Beijing or Shanghai." Yet the UK had no overarching strategy about what it should be trying to achieve in China in the long term or what form partnerships should take, she said.
Andrew Halper, head of the China business practice at law firm Eversheds, agreed that there was "too much desperation to do deals in China".
"People do need to be more careful," he said.