It was recently reported that the number of Chinese students studying at UK universities is to rise by roughly a third this year, largely as a knock-on effect of ongoing China-US trade tensions. That will take Britain’s population of Chinese students to well over 100,000, a milestone first reached in 2017-18.[1] This is a remarkable development that prompts several questions: What is the impact on UK higher education of a rising Chinese student intake? What does it mean for the broader UK-China relationship? And what action, if any, is needed by policymakers?

Firstly, let’s consider the numbers in perspective. Based on the most recent data, China now sends about the same number of students to the UK as the next nine, non-EU, student-sending countries combined, and over five times the number sent by either the US or India. That means around one in four of the UK’s international students is now Chinese. For the best part of the last decade, the number of Chinese entrants at British universities has already exceeded the total from all EU countries put together. And, perhaps most incredibly of all, the UK now has more students from China than from either Northern Ireland or Wales, its own constituent countries.

On the one hand, the ability to attract foreign students is of course something for the UK to celebrate. It is a boost for cities around Britain whose economies benefit enormously from the spending of international student-consumers.[2] It is great news for the many Brits working in the wider educational eco-system, for example as private tutors or educational consultants. More than anything, it is a vote of confidence in one of the UK’s key cultural exports at a time of considerable uncertainty for the country on the global stage.

But the news should also be a cause for concern. Such a sudden, dramatic rise in student-consumers from one country indicates a heightened level of exposure to a single global market. The effects of such over-exposure to China have been acutely felt before by companies in other UK industries, including Jaguar Land Rover and Burberry, leading to job losses and cost slashing. Like any commercial enterprise (which UK universities should effectively be regarded as), higher education needs to manage its supply and demand in a way that is sustainable, so that jobs and opportunities are not left vulnerable to extreme, "black swan" events. In the case of China, such occurrences are far from impossible, whether in the form of a near-term economic downturn or a further deterioration in the Sino-Western, geo-political climate.  

Over-exposure aside, there is another reason why a sharp rise in one student demographic should be concerning – it has the power to distort the nature of teaching and research being carried out at British universities. This issue of "overweighting" certain candidate profiles has been much discussed regarding the UK’s own home students, particularly in terms of racial and secondary schooling background. Unfortunately, however, the equally significant issue of international student diversity has received scant attention. This raises the possibility of numerous detrimental effects, as I summarise here:

1. A Less Immersive Education for International Students

First and foremost, an outsize intake of students from China (or indeed any single country) is bad for those students themselves. Imagine going to study half-way across the world and finding that much of your class, perhaps even your entire course, was made up of students from your own country.[3] It would surely be impossible to break away from the comfort zones of cultural and linguistic familiarity that you share with those compatriots. The education your received would not be an immersive intellectual experience that enabled you to think and consider problems any differently than you would back home. In short, the value of your overseas studies would be very seriously undermined.

And yet, these are exactly the circumstances facing many Chinese coming to study in the UK. For some, it isn’t an issue – I have heard former international students remark that they simply wanted a degree for their CV, as well as connections and (maybe) some new technical knowledge or skills. But I have also heard many express frustration and dissatisfaction with the non-immersive academic and cultural experiences that they received while studying in Britain. And I have met lots of Chinese graduates from UK and US colleges who have returned to China with broken English and a limited grasp of Western cultural and academic values.

2. An Awkward Environment for All Students and Lecturers

In addition to international students, excessive recruitment from a single country has detrimental effects on the study and work of all students and lecturers. As the proportion of students from China or another single region is increased, mono-cultural cliques become more entrenched, and the extent of academic interaction and cross-cultural integration is diminished. Rather than fulfil an ideal of harmonious, multi-cultural learning, the reality is often a state of fragmentation and self-imposed segregation, an us-and-them dynamic inconducive to balanced, diverse discussion.

From my own recent experience as a graduate student in the UK, I have seen how this can sometimes create an awkward, unproductive environment in seminars and lectures. When students of a certain profile do not actively participate, but those of another demographic do, it severely limits the ease with which ideas and perspectives can be freely and fairly exchanged. It is a disadvantage not just for students, but also for the academics trying to lead engaging, interactive classes.

3. A Growing, Cultural and Political Perception Gap

Beyond campus walls, over-recruitment from China is likely to have much a broader impact on global politics. Without a genuinely immersive academic experience filled with cross-cultural social interaction, overseas students are liable to return home without having seriously opened their minds or challenged their views, perhaps even becoming more attached to pre-conditioned beliefs. When this happens on a large scale, it leads to a widening of the perception gap between different countries and value systems, a phenomenon that one can currently see playing out on issues such as the recent Hong Kong unrest. Unfamiliar with Western norms of free expression and political assembly, mainland Chinese students have been clashing with counterparts from Hong Kong and Western countries at university campuses around the world.[4]

This widening perception gulf should be especially concerning at a time when cultural and academic discourse appear to be becoming more polarized and politicized. In the current political climate, parents and authorities in the West and China alike are becoming increasingly wary of overseas study. US-bound Chinese students are expected to decline this year, a result of the ongoing trade war. While just recently, it emerged that the CIA had interrogated two American citizens recently returning from overseas study in Beijing on the Yenching programme. This is a very worrying trend, one that we should hope does not also arrive in the UK.

Conclusion: Careful Cost-Benefit Analysis is Required

So what are the implications for UK higher education policy? Am I suggesting that we reduce the number of Chinese students coming to the UK? No. Is this post just a long-winded attempt to disguise a hawkish or even xenophobic attack on Britain's international academic arrivals? Far from it.

I am immensely proud to come from a country that continues to welcome large numbers of foreign students into its educational system. I have personally benefited from overseas study and exchange with students from diverse cultural backgrounds. I have been fortunate to make many friends from China while studying there and in the UK. And I am confident that many students who come to study in Britain are able to benefit and contribute enormously during their courses. But, as described above, I have also seen up close the less successful side of the UK’s overseas study industry. That is why I tentatively propose the following:

In post-Brexit Britain, the UK must sustain or even increase the number of incoming international students, but never at the expense of rigorous tuition or research. While strict, maximum limits on international intake are not the answer, policymakers would be wise to monitor the weighting between students of different domiciles with much more care and control than has previously been the case. We should welcome students from China, as much as those of any other country, both for the financial and geo-political benefits that they bring. By all means, let us make money through our higher education exports, if it is done in a way that is sustainable and doesn't create excessive exposure to a single global market.

It is vital, however, that foreign students are not treated simply as pots of cash, nor as mere cogs in the wheel of the UK's foreign policy machine. This will do nothing but damage to the tradition of world-class education and research that Britain is celebrated for. Above all, the UK must continue to deepen academic exchange with key international partners such as China, but only as long as cultural and academic values are upheld, and perception gaps not inadvertently widened.


[1] See data from HESA and UKCISA. Figures for China do not include students from Hong Kong, which also sends a large number to the UK, ranking fourth among non-EU countries or regions behind the USA.

[2] According to Hepi, international students contribute over £20 billion the UK economy (roughly ten times what it costs to host them), but with significant regional variation.

[3] As reported by The Times, there are now almost 1,000 courses at Russell Group universities available exclusively to international students, though some courses end up being dominated only by students from single countries, especially China.

[4] See this SCMP report on such cases in New Zealand and Australia.

Header Image: Students from China unfurl their national flag to greet the arrival of a senior Chinese official at the University of Oxford, December 2017.