The former universities minister Jo Johnson has warned of the “poorly understood” risks of increasingly close collaboration between UK universities and China.
A study led by Johnson identified a significant increase in funding from China and collaboration with Chinese researchers over the past two decades, including in sensitive areas for national security and economic competition – such as automation, telecommunications and materials science – or in disciplines where collaboration may threaten freedom of speech.
“The UK urgently needs to put in place a framework for this key relationship so that it will be able to withstand rising geopolitical tensions. Failure to do so risks real damage to our knowledge economy,” said Johnson.
“The UK needs to do a better job of measuring, managing and mitigating risks that are at present poorly understood and monitored.”
China is on track to overtake the US as the UK’s main research partner after a tenfold increase in research partnerships, from 750 in 2000 to 16,267 in 2019, primarily in technology-related disciplines. In 20 subject areas, collaborations with China account for more than 20% of the UK’s high-impact research, the study said.
The report on education and research collaboration between the UK and China from King’s College London, Harvard Kennedy School and Clarivate also suggested that the universities watchdog, the Office for Students, should explore ways to make UK universities less financially reliant on tuition-fee income from Chinese students.
At present those fees are used to subsidise research, but this could be threatened by the rapid expansion of Chinese universities, which may result in fewer students choosing to study abroad in future. The report recommended that the UK government increase direct research funding for universities instead.
The report falls short of recommending a decoupling from China, but the authors said universities’ approaches must reflect a shift away from the openness advocated by the former prime minister David Cameron towards a more sceptical stance that frames China as a potentially “hostile state”.
The report stated: “The UK’s dependence on a neo-totalitarian technology power for the financial health and research output of its universities is now regarded as a particular point of vulnerability.”
However, the authors said that China is also an important “cooperation partner with which the UK has closely aligned objectives”, and identified the “lack [of] basic levels of China, and Asia, literacy” in the UK as a barrier. They suggested this could be remedied by expanding rather than shrinking Chinese studies departments in UK universities, which at present produce a “dismal” 300 undergraduates annually.