It is estimated that last year Chinese students were worth about £1.7 billion to the UK higher education sector. How can UK universities simultaneously keep funds above board, while maintaining the cultural diversity the nation is renowned for?
It was recently reported by HESA that the number of Chinese students at UK universities has risen by 34% in the last five years, with the total now exceeding 120,000. This dwarves the number of international students from elsewhere - including countries such as India and, for the first time, Northern Ireland - both in terms of total numbers and the rate of increase. The trend shows no sign of stopping and means not only that more students now come to the UK from China to study at university than from any other country but that this is likely to remain the case for some time.
The UK has long been a popular destination for international students and for Chinese students in particular. Even so, the extent of the numbers gap is stark and widening. One contributing factor may be that the UK is currently benefitting from diplomatic tension between China and the US, with Chinese students who would have travelled to America to study coming here instead.
In certain subject areas, many universities could fill entire courses with Chinese students, some several times over, particularly at postgraduate level. Huge numbers of Chinese applicants have the academics and means to satisfy entrance requirements and are able to apply earlier in the admissions cycle than their counterparts from elsewhere. From a financial perspective, this reliable demand creates clear and substantial benefits. But there are also of course some potential pitfalls, not least a situation where some UK universities may be reaching the point where they are dependent on the higher fees paid by large numbers of Chinese students to balance the books. The UK has not yet reached the level of reliance evident in Australia but, as the TES has noted recently, there are now a number of institutions where Chinese students comprise more than 10% of the population.
Dealing with Diversity
Another potential problem is the impact on cultural diversity. One of the main reasons these students (and others) want to study here is to experience another language and culture, both of which are undermined if any one particular international student group becomes disproportionate in size. The mission statement of most universities includes maintenance of a diverse and balanced learning community. Having 'too many' students from any one part of the world makes this more difficult.
Other concerns have also been raised, including the Foreign Affairs Committee warning about the threat to academic freedom posed by autocratic governments using financial, political and diplomatic pressure to try to influence what is taught, researched and discussed on UK campuses. Some universities have already severed ties with technology companies over fears that their home government links could represent a national security risk through espionage or theft.
Addressing these issues and reconciling conflicting interests is no easy task. It is not unusual for institutions to cap, openly or otherwise, the number of students from any one particular country on popular courses. Not only does this sort of intervention risk alienating motivated and well-qualified applicants from applying, it may also breach the Equality Act and cause significant reputational damage at home and abroad.
With Brexit imminent, having an international outlook and welcoming students and academics from all over the globe is vital. The challenge now is balancing economic imperatives with lawful preservation of the diversity and freedom that made travelling to the UK to study so attractive in the first place.