UK’s China expertise ‘needs more student demand’ to thrive

Chinese studies should be strategic priority course in HE and new A level would boost student numbers at universities, says Hepi report

March 31, 2022
A martial arts master serves tea in a traditional teahouse to illustrate UK’s China expertise ‘needs more student demand’ to thrive
Source: Getty

Much-needed measures to boost the UK’s national expertise on China should include reinstating Chinese studies as a strategically important subject in higher education and creating a new A level to boost student demand at universities, according to a Higher Education Policy Institute report.

Despite China’s crucial and growing global role, there has been no official review into the state of Chinese studies in UK higher education since the late 1990s, notes the report, Understanding China: the Study of China in UK Schools and Universities, based on interviews with more than 40 experts from education, government and business.

Since then, “undergraduate numbers on Chinese studies courses have not grown and departments now face additional funding pressures”, writes the report’s author, Michael Natzler, a former Hepi policy officer, now a consultant at Nous Group.

The report sets out recommendations to help ensure “a higher basic level of understanding of China’s role today across the UK population”, as well as more specialised knowledge in sectors such as the Civil Service and business: that a greater proportion of the UK population are “able to speak Mandarin and/or read Modern Standard Chinese”; and that there is improved expertise on China in the UK in key areas such as “the workings of the Chinese Communist Party”.

The “level of understanding in China about the UK is higher among the Chinese Communist Party elite, many of whom have studied in the UK, the US or Europe”, it observes.

According to figures cited in the report from Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, the number of Chinese language graduates from UK universities remained static at 300 between 1999 and 2015, the period of China’s rise.

The report quotes the director of one university Chinese department not currently offering an undergraduate course as saying: “We looked into putting on a course, but there was simply not enough demand. Mandarin is a resource-intensive language to teach and is not possible to deliver with low student numbers.”

The report recommends that the Office for Students “should reinstate Chinese studies as an area of strategic importance to recognise the vicarious position of the subject, the high cost associated with teaching Mandarin and its strategic importance to the UK”.

To sidestep the common reluctance of English speakers to take on the significant challenge of learning Mandarin, the Department for Education “should revisit the widely supported prospect of an A level in Chinese civilisation to open up the study of China to a wider number of school pupils without the language barrier”, it also says.

There is consensus on the need to build the UK’s China literacy but no consensus on a way forward, said Mr Natzler.

“The challenge is that there is not enough interest in schools for there to be a large pool of applicants to higher education, simply because there is so little exposure to China in schools,” he added.

There are “not enough opportunities for students to engage with China without having to tackle the language”, Mr Natzler continued. “An A level in Chinese civilisation could be a great route to pursue to open up the study of China. Universities will then have more applicants to work with [helping them] to refine their offering.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Don't forget Japan and Russia. If the UK wishes to remain a world power we need our (top) students to know much more about the wider world.


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