Over-reliance on China threatening sustainability of UK research – report


UK higher education must introduce a “robust framework” to monitor and map research collaboration with China in order to mitigate risks, a new report has suggested.

The report, published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, Harvard Kennedy School, and the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, found that around 11% of UK research output is made in collaboration with China.

Over two decades, the number of papers the two countries have cooperated on has risen from 750 in 2000 to 16,267 in 2019.

While 20% of high-impact UK research in at least 20 subject categories is made in collaboration with China, in three “key” subjects – automation and control systems; telecommunications; and materials science, ceramics – it represents more than 30% of output, the study noted.

Key risks outlined in the report include financial dependence on income flows from students from one country, the extent to which China has risen to become the UK’s most important science and technology collaborator, and threats associated with freedom of speech, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy.

China is set to pass the US as the UK’s most significant research partner, but severing ties with the country would be “unwise”, “unviable, and unlikely to be in the national interest”, the report noted. However, a “clear and strategic” approach to research collaboration capable of mitigating real risks is required.

The research also found that China is set to overtake the US to become the world’s biggest spender on R&D, which is “raising pressing questions for policymakers at a time of rising geopolitical tensions”.

Among the recommendations outlined, the paper urged the UK’s universities regulator, the Office for Students, to “more actively monitor” risks and require institutions to put in place plans to guard against them.

Diversified recruitment strategies would help to mitigate risks, the paper suggested, and universities “should be assisted in diversifying their international student intake, by continuing to monitor and improve on the competitiveness of the UK visa offer, with respect to fees, processing times, and post-study work rights”.

“HE exports to China represent the UK’s single largest services export to any country,” the report highlighted, but relying on tuition fee income from Chinese students to cross-subsidize loss-making research “creates a strategic dependency and potential vulnerability”. In 2019, full-time Chinese students in UK higher education brought in approximately £3.7 billion, the report estimated.

Failure to put in place a framework to withstand rising geopolitical tensions “risks real damage to our knowledge economy”, said the president’s professorial fellow at King’s College London, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and one of the report’s authors, Jo Johnson.

Speaking with the BBC Radio 4’s Today program, Johnson explained that it is “clear we are developing real dependencies on China, almost by accident”.

“I don’t wish to suggest that we don’t want a strong relationship with China, of course, we do – that brings enormous benefits to our research system, and to our higher education system, but we do need to understand these dependencies better, and have in place systems to manage the risks around them,” he said.

The report also suggested that steps should be “taken to ensure a more transparent two-way flow of knowledge”, with increased reciprocal access and regular partnership visits to Chinese laboratories and schemes, and “enhanced incentives” to place UK researchers in China.

The country should additionally publish an annual risk assessment of the UK’s dependence on third countries across different areas of research and development and “operate a traffic light system to warn policy-makers of over-dependence in particular areas of research”.

UKRI should also undertake a full audit of current projects with China, the report added.

Along with potential fallout from geopolitical tensions, the report notes that growth in higher education capacity and institutional quality in China will likely “place a significant downward pressure on student enrolments internationally over the medium-to-long term”.

“China, over the next decade, is likely to consolidate its appeal as a global destination for HE,” it said.

However, the report also noted that Chinese students in the UK have “very high” overall satisfaction rates and “very low” drop-out rates, which indicates “that UK universities are in a strong position to attract those students who may still choose to study beyond China“.