UK universities
Here’s why UK politicians are worried about the influx of Chinese students at UK universities. Source: Shutterstock

Countries such as the US and Australia have traditionally attracted throngs of students from China, but fears of espionage and foreign interference have followed its wake. 

Last year, Australia expressed growing concerns over China’s influence on its varsities. This includes cyberspying and “students and staff ‘self-censoring’ on sensitive political issues such as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong”.

Following this, the Australian government formed a task force of intelligence officials and university executives to counter foreign powers exerting influence in its universities, reported Reuters.

In light of this, should UK universities remain vigilant?

Precarious times on the horizon for UK universities?

In light of Brexit and its potentially negative impact on international student enrolment, an influx of Chinese students into the UK may be welcome news. 

International students serve as an important source of income for universities as they pay double or triple the price UK students pay.

According to reports, the number of Chinese international students in the UK has soared by 34 percent in the last five years.

While the numbers have not peaked, MPs have warned that universities are naive in underestimating the influence of the Chinese government on campus, reported the BBC.

They note that one in five students at the University of Liverpool come from China, among the highest Chinese enrolment rates in the country.

The report added that MPs have expressed concerns that universities are not thinking through the implications of relying on significant amounts of Chinese money.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee also said they were being naive about the potential risks around intellectual espionage or freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, Tom Tugendhat, the former committee chairman, was quoted saying that when a university does a deal to set up a campus abroad or recruit lots of students, it’s not just about bringing in money to the UK.

Tugendhat wants universities to engage more with the Foreign Office for advice. 

“In some countries censorship comes with the cash, and in others control comes with the students,” he said.

“Those students will not just be bringing open minds ready to learn, but also the apparatus of state control either through direct influence or through pressure exerted on their families that really is completely foreign to British universities.”

He added that UK universities should follow the example of some in the US and Australia, which have asked the Confucius Institute – which promotes Chinese language and culture – to move off campus.

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