Rethink China research links or face backlash, UK campuses told

Absence of sector-wide information regarding Sino-British research invites political attack from China hawks, warns study led by prime minister’s brother

March 9, 2021
Panda eating bamboo, symbol of China
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The UK needs to “urgently” improve its monitoring of academic links with China to avoid higher education becoming caught up in an escalating “proxy war” between the two countries, a new study led by the former universities minister Lord Johnson of Marylebone advises.

Warning that UK universities have become “key battlespaces” in an “intensifying geopolitical rivalry”, the report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, the Harvard Kennedy School and the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate says that the extensive research and education ties between the UK and China are “inadequately mapped”. It adds that higher education institutions should do more to measure, manage and mitigate the “poorly understood” risks they face, such as financial dependency on Chinese students to cross-subsidise research or their heavy reliance on Chinese research partnerships.

The study, which explains how research ties between the UK and China have grown tenfold in past 20 years, with 11 per cent of all UK research output – some 16,000 papers – having a Chinese co-author in 2019, recommends a “clear and strategic approach to research collaboration”.

With more than a fifth of papers in high-impact science and technology subjects featuring a Chinese research partner, this “heightened degree of integration makes any idea of decoupling from China both unviable and unlikely to be in the national interest”, the report adds.

“Disorderly disengagement would damage the UK university system, with significant costs for tertiary education and the performance of the UK knowledge economy,” it warns.

However, UK universities and the English regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), must do more to understand the pattern of research collaboration between Britain and China given the increasingly strained political links between the two countries, with “how best to engage China…the first major foreign policy challenge for a post-Brexit UK”.

“The UK’s dependence on a neototalitarian technology power for the financial health and research output of its universities is now regarded as a particular point of vulnerability,” explains the report, which says the UK’s overt prioritisation of trade with China under David Cameron was replaced by a toughened stance by Theresa May, which has continued under Boris Johnson.

Hawkish attitudes towards China have also strengthened following Brexit, since “pugnaciousness towards China has replaced Euroscepticism as the key test of virility on Tory benches”, members of which have found common cause with left-wing Labour MPs concerned over human rights abuses of the Uighur Muslim population, it adds.

“The risk of a backlash is becoming increasingly real,” the study warns.

“Academia and higher education are key battlespaces for this intensifying geopolitical rivalry,” it says, adding that while this “not a new phenomenon” as campuses are “natural and deeply familiar ground for ‘proxy war’ between economic competitors…[and] it is happening on a greater scale” than previously given China’s growing economic strength.

“With China set to overtake the US to become both the world’s biggest spender on R&D and the UK’s most significant research partner, the UK urgently needs to put in place a framework for this key relationship so that it will be able to withstand rising geopolitical tensions,” said Lord Johnson, president’s professorial fellow at King’s and senior fellow at the Kennedy School, who added that “failure to do so risks real damage to our knowledge economy”.

Advising that UK must “manage and mitigate contingent risks, real or perceived”, the report calls for an increased in quality-related research spending to allow universities to reduce their reliance on Chinese student income to cross-subsidise research, while institutions should also seek to diversify their international student intake away from Chinese students.

The OfS should monitor which institutions have a “strategic dependency and potential vulnerability” to overreliance on Chinese students and ensure they have plans to mitigate this, it adds.

UK Research and Innovation, which distributes about £6 billion a year in research funding, should play an active role in reassuring policymakers, recommends the study, by conducting a full audit of current projects with China, carrying out an annual risk assessment of the UK’s dependence on third countries across different areas of research and development, and operating a traffic light system to warn policymakers of overdependence in particular areas of research.

The science funding body should also report annually on “‘brain circulation’ into and out of the UK”, the study says.

It should also help to create a government-sponsored body to “contribute unique research and analytic capacity on foreign engagement risk and establish a unified point of contact about it for the research enterprise”.

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