Disorders of orders of magnitude

China’s sheer size means that its present economic woes will be felt worldwide, not least across the higher education sector

September 10, 2015
Protestor holding banner, Admiralty District, Hong Kong
Source: Getty
Political tension has risen since protests in 2014

The unstoppable growth machine is slowing, sending shock waves around the world and making the global economic recovery look decidedly fragile.

China’s GDP has expanded at an average of 10 per cent a year since the introduction of market reforms in 1978, and with a population of 1.4 billion, it is now the world’s second largest economy. But this economic miracle, fuelled by an incongruous combination of five-year plans and the unleashing of market forces, is now sputtering like the besmogged cities that have powered it.

One of the many questions prompted by this slowdown and the associated stock market crisis is what it means both for Chinese universities, which have grown in stature on the back of years of steady investment, and for the outward flow of the Chinese students who are so crucial to Western universities.

Speaking to Times Higher Education last week, internationalisation experts recalled the impact of the crash in Malaysia in the late 1990s, when its cohort of young people studying in the UK almost halved.

The situation is much more dangerous today, warned one observer, both because of the sheer size of China’s student diaspora (which Unesco estimates at 700,000, three and a half times that of its nearest rival, India), and because universities elsewhere are now even more reliant on the fee income they bring.

University leaders in the UK will say that the important thing is to have students from a range of countries, but the truth is that China is so much bigger than all other players in this game that its significance is hard to overstate.

The question is whether the economic slowdown, the loss of family savings in the stock market crash and the impact of fluctuations in the exchange rate might put a serious dent in Chinese student mobility in the short or medium term.

The other question is what the financial slowdown in China could mean for its own universities. There’s no doubt that their steady march up the world university rankings in recent years is down to the financial investment they have received. If this funding were to be jeopardised, it could not fail to have an impact.

However, we know from the experience of Western universities that one of the crucial factors in driving university performance, even when money is tight, is academic autonomy.

With this in mind, our cover story this week, in which we hear from a number of scholars in Hong Kong who fear that Beijing is having a chilling effect on academic freedom, could have a broader bearing on Chinese universities as they seek to continue their upward trajectory.

This is particularly true of universities operating at the very top of the spectrum, as was pointed out recently by David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies.

It is in the highest ranked universities globally that the “academic lunatics are still in charge of the asylum”, he said, because “academics at these elites can’t be treated badly given that they are internationally mobile”. In other words, if they don’t find the academic environment conducive to world-class research, then world-class researchers will go elsewhere.

It’s yet another reminder that everything is connected in the highly globalised and networked academy – and what happens in China does not stay in China.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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