Can the West ride Chinese higher education tsunami?

There is no holding back the king tide that is the Asian country’s higher education ambition – yet while the torrent carries some riches, what will it sweep away?

July 5, 2018
Two surfers on the ocean
Source: Getty

Here’s a fact that may surprise you as summer holidays approach: Chinese tourists now spend more than $260 billion (£197 billion) abroad – $100 billion more than American tourists.

Whether surfing at Bondi Beach or playing on slot machines on Blackpool pier, they are doing it in significantly larger numbers than in 1995, when, according to the World Bank, Chinese travellers spent just $3.7 billion, compared with the $61 billion splashed out by Americans.

This sort of growth – a 70-fold increase in just over 20 years – is replicated across any number of indicators that track China’s extraordinary economic rise.

China, to state the blindingly obvious, is huge, and when it decides to make waves, they are the sort that can be ridden only by gnarly Australian dudes with jet-skiing outriders.

In higher education, China’s growing power and confidence has been felt across the world.

Its top universities are busy recalling expatriate Chinese academics, luring them home with bigger salaries, bigger jobs and bigger labs (several presidents made clear how well this strategy was working for them at the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit in Shenzhen earlier this year).

It’s an approach, incidentally, that Chinese tech companies are mirroring: The Wall Street Journal reported last week on the flow of Chinese talent out of Silicon Valley back to places such as Shenzhen.

Investment in research in China is, like so many other things, on a vertiginous trajectory.

Take just one example: the budget of the National Natural Science Foundation of China. In the 31 years since its foundation, its funding has increased 360 times – from an admittedly low base – and now stands at 28 billion yuan (£3.2 billion).

No wonder that China is hot on the US’ heels when it comes to research output, or that it is rapidly making up ground even on quality-based measures.

As for students, the world’s most respected university systems are heavily reliant on itinerant young Chinese.

This is an issue for the UK, undoubtedly, but even more so for Australia: a recent THE investigation found that overseas students now account for 30 per cent of the income at the country’s richest universities. It is also an issue for China, since the outflow of students is not a deliberate policy decision so much as a failure to meet the domestic demand with sufficient high-quality supply.

This demand is not about to dry up – indeed, the number of Chinese travelling abroad to study is forecast to continue growing over the next decade.

However, there are circumstances in which this sunny forecast could quickly cloud over.

Politics is one obvious risk factor, and in our news pages we reveal leaked figures on visa refusal rates for Chinese students seeking to study in Australia, which show how vulnerable this income stream could be.

The fragile global financial situation poses another risk, while China’s own rapidly improving universities can be expected to take on more of the top student talent in years to come.

Any major downturn in the outflow from China would have a direct impact on the money available for research in the West, where international fees are often an irreplaceable subsidy – which could, in turn, accelerate China’s march up the rankings and past the established research powerhouses.

Perhaps you take the view that none of the facts and figures given here are revelatory – talk about the Asian century is nothing new.

But it is sometimes worth stopping to gawp at the sheer scale of what’s happening. And we can expect it to continue, particularly in light of the ongoing investment through the Double First Class project, which will funnel funding to top-ranking universities in China until 2050.

In the words of one UK vice-chancellor with considerable experience and expertise in the country, “the Chinese are putting a lot of money into higher education, and it will work because it is not a country that worries too much about efficiency if it is on a mission. They just throw resources until they get movement.”

The question is what this tidal wave will bring with it, and what it will wash away.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Surfing a tidal wave

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