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09 March 2021

China's influence on UK research has grown ten-fold in past 20 years

More than a fifth of research in many key subjects involves collaboration with China

China map

The China question

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Research collaboration between China and the UK has increased significantly in recent decades, underscoring the need for robust measures to manage the relationship between the two countries, according to a new study led by former universities minister Jo Johnson.

In 2019, China and the UK collaborated on 16,267 research papers – up from around 750 in 2000. This amounts to around 11 per cent of the UK’s research output now including Chinese authors – up from just 1 per cent 20 years ago, as indexed in the Web of ScienceTM global citation index.

On its current trajectory, China is set to overtake the US to become both the world’s biggest spender on R&D and the UK’s most significant research partner, raising pressing questions for policymakers at a time of rising geopolitical tensions, the study says.

Published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Harvard Kennedy School, the report builds a picture of Chinese integration in UK higher education and research.

There are now no fewer than 20 subject categories in which collaborations with China account for more than 20 per cent of the UK’s high-impact research. In three key subjects – automation and control systems; telecommunications; and materials science, ceramics – collaborations with China represent more than 30 per cent of such output.

The authors argue this heightened degree of integration makes any idea of decoupling from China both unviable and unlikely to be in the national interest, but does signal the need for a clear and strategic approach to research collaboration that is capable of mitigating real risks.

The universities regulator, the Office for Students, should more actively monitor these risks and require institutions to put in place plans to guard against them, including through recruitment diversification strategies, the authors recommend.

Higher education exports to China represent the UK’s single largest services export to any country. But reliance on significant tuition fee income from Chinese students to cross-subsidise loss-making research creates a strategic dependency and potential vulnerability, the report says.

However, the growth in capacity and institutional quality of China’s own higher education system is likely to 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 higher education in its own right, the study says.

But the research also shows that Chinese students in the UK have very high overall satisfaction rates and a very low drop-out rate, indicating that UK universities are in a strong position to attract those students who may still choose to study beyond China.

With China set to overtake the US to become both the world’s biggest spender on R&D and the UK’s most significant research partner, 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. We have an extensive relationship with China across our university system, in both teaching and research, that is inadequately mapped at present. The UK needs to do a better job of measuring, managing and mitigating risks that are at present poorly understood and monitored.

Jo Johnson, President’s Professorial Fellow at King’s College London and Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School

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