Has Chinese money compromised our universities?
Not so long ago, in those radical days of student sit-ins and protest marches, with strident young voices demanding to be heard, British universities received virtually all their money from public funds, and even overseas students were heavily subsidised. But the times they are a changin’, and today every UK university operates as a business on corporate lines, competing for cash in a global marketplace, mainly through funding agencies.
The main source of UK university funding is China, an authoritarian state controlling its leading companies and, to a large degree, its people. This level of state control might well have led to student agitation and any number of those sit-ins of 50 years back. Only six years ago, then Prime Minister David Cameron was hailing a new “golden era” in the relationship between Britain and China, but again, times quickly change, and the current UK government is much more wary, notably reversing the decision to allow Chinese company Huawei to participate in the rollout of the UK’s 5G network.
However, the Chinese presence, investment and influence within the UK’s universities continues to increase, with much of the activity largely hidden from public scrutiny. More than 140,000 Chinese students were at UK universities for the period 2019-20, accounting for £2bn in revenue for the higher education sector.
And in 2019 more than 500 Chinese military scientists were attached to British universities. Amid fears that our universities are relying too much on Chinese finance, a report by Onward, a think-tank supported by Tory MPs and supporters, claims that there are “well-founded fears” that China’s Communist Party and its satellites have sought to undermine academic freedom and research on UK campuses. Amongst other recommendations the Onward report suggests capping the income a university can earn from a single country.
Currently, nine universities depend on Chinese students for more than 20% of their annual revenues. Huawei, rejected by the government as a 5G network partner, has already provided significant funding for Jesus College, Cambridge, while Oxford University has agreed to re-name its Wykeham Chair of Physics as the Tencent- Wykeham Professorship after Tencent, a Chinese software company with links to the communist regime’s intelligence service, offered a £700,000 donation in return.
And recently four Chinese students were awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and will join a group of Rhodes Scholars from all over the world at Oxford next year. The growing Chinese influence is unarguable, but in our survey a significant majority, 59%, said it was inappropriate for organisations with links to the Chinese state to provide funding for British universities. As the saying goes, that horse may already have bolted.
Although an even higher percentage, 61%, believe that Huawei and Chinese state agency funding for Jesus College at Cambridge compromises the university’s academic integrity. It appears though that the Chinese are here and intend to stay, and that in higher education, as in every other area of business, money talks.