UK’s financial focus on China will cost it in the long term

Mike Gow laments Britain’s pursuit of revenues over development of cultural understanding

June 11, 2015
From Where I Sit illustration (11 June 2015)

This week, Tania Branigan signed off as China correspondent for The Guardian after seven years in the Middle Kingdom. I will miss her contributions to coverage of this country’s trials and triumphs. In her final article, she lamented a significant deficit in cultural understanding, one in which the UK is on the losing side. I have to agree with her: the British have thus far failed to convince their young people that it is vital to adapt to a changing world in which China occupies a role of increasing geopolitical, cultural and economic importance.

The UK higher education sector has, over the past 15 years or so, been the most active nation in the world in establishing higher education collaborations with Chinese universities. In the number of such arrangements, we still lead the way: according to China’s Ministry of Education, the UK has 251 such formally approved pacts, ahead of all other countries, including the US (220), Germany (53), France (27) and Japan (14). UK universities are also leaders in collaborative pathway and foundation programmes.

But on one significant measure – the number of students coming to China – the UK is a laggard. Ministry of Education figures for 2014 show that it sent just 5,920 students to China. The US sent 24,203 (with thousands more Americans making short-term summer visits). The UK also trails South Korea (69,293), Thailand (21,926), Russia (17,202), Japan (15,057), Indonesia (13,689), India (13,578), Pakistan (13,360), Kazakhstan (11,794), France (10,729) and Germany (8,193).

The UK is a leader in leveraging its own higher education system to attract Chinese students, but it languishes near the bottom in sending its own undergraduates to study in the 21st century’s most important country.

I’ve been fortunate to work for the past two years as a global postdoctoral fellow at NYU Shanghai, China’s first Sino-American joint venture university. The institution is unique, even among peers such as the Chinese ventures of the universities of Nottingham and Liverpool, in that its student body is roughly 50 per cent Chinese and 50 per cent international.

What I have experienced and witnessed when teaching at NYU Shanghai has been nothing short of an epiphany. My Chinese students have transitioned rapidly and seamlessly to independent learning; they are proactive, curious and incredibly diligent. The international students have demonstrated great skills at negotiating the different cultural terrain of life in Shanghai. But most impressive has been the way the students have grown together: helping one another to overcome the challenges they face; observing, watching and learning from each other; and developing a considerate, compassionate and cosmopolitan disposition. Of course some have excelled while others have struggled; but the overwhelming impression is that their cross-cultural understanding and communication skills have blossomed in this setting.

It is regrettable that the UK higher education sector is being deployed primarily to fill funding gaps created by our austerity-obsessed government, yet we are not working to provide British undergraduates with opportunities to get to know China. The UK needs graduates who understand China. Although we are uniquely placed to excel at this, we continue to focus solely on revenue generation through aggressive marketing in China. Such institutional myopia is bound to harm our relationship with China in the medium to long term.

Mike Gow is a global postdoctoral fellow at NYU Shanghai.

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