Higher Education and a ‘New Cold War’

In 2015, Cameron and Osborne’s cabinet declared a ‘golden era’ of relations with China. Since then, those relations have become increasingly antagonistic, and the young millennium has given rise to a new iteration of ‘Cold War’ geopolitics. British business, law, and politics have all been dragged into the debate over the United Kingdom’s involvement with China. Universities are now taking their turn in the limelight of this evermore-encompassing geopolitical issue. This investigation aims to highlight recent issues outlined by the press and also contribute The Oxford Blue’s findings to the incipient debate. Finally, this article will draw on investigative material which The Blue’s Investigations Team has acquired in relation to Oxford University specifically. The intention is to present the team’s findings and place them in relation to a wider political backdrop rather than come to any definitive conclusions or rush to any defined viewpoint.

The debate around university involvement with China, which has gained much recent traction in the media, can be condensed into three essential issues. The first is to do with overseas fees and student numbers. Onward, the UK ThinkTank, suggests that whilst the increase in overseas student numbers has clear benefits, when it comes to China it could pose risks through over-reliance as well as vulnerability to the the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). One King’s College London (KCL) report suggests that there is, in turn, “A lack of financial resilience arising from a dependence on income flows from students from one country [China]”. The number of overseas students at UK universities has indeed increased by sevenfold since 1995, and now makes up on average 53% of Russell Group university income. Of course – for us –  both of these respective increases constitute a positive rather than a negative, but have nevertheless instigated a debate prolific enough to be worthy of our attention.

The second area of interest is the amount, origin and destination of private investment from Chinese companies into the University of Oxford, an aspect of the relationship which reflects general trends across UK universities. This investment often encompasses so-called sensitive ‘target areas’: sectors such as artificial intelligence, biotech, engineering, cyber, and space. As the KCL Report points out, China is now “representing an exceptionally high share of the UK’s research output in the key scientific domains”. Investment has only been growing in its stature as a contentious issue; debates over investment from companies like Huawei have become crucibles for the larger debate about the influence of the CCP in UK university affairs. 

Finally – and again linked to the issue of investment – is joint research. That is, collaboration between Chinese and British state institutions. This raises fairly similar questions to those over private investment: largely over how much interdependency the UK is prepared to have with China in its most sensitive areas of research. 

This investigation looks to present the Oxford-specific information that the team has attained regarding the university’s relationship with China, specifically in these three areas. It will also provide the relevant background regarding the globalisation of UK education. This allows the specific example of Oxford to be set against the wider picture of geopolitical relations in higher education.

The Globalisation of UK Education & Oxford University

Before presenting some of our own data (received via freedom of information requests — or FOI), it is important to set up some background regarding the increase of international students, particularly those from China, at UK universities. Since the introduction of ‘full cost’ fees for overseas students in the 1980s, international fees have gone from being a relatively niche source of extra funding to a fundamental aspect of university finance. As would be expected, the percentage of both undergraduate and postgraduate international students attending all UK universities has increased, with the percentage of international students in the session 2019/20 rising to 22% of the total student population.  

Some of those who take a more reactionary stance have raised the question of whether the UK relies too heavily on funding from Chinese national students in universities – something, for the record, that The Investigations Team fundamentally disagrees with. Tom Tugendhat, head of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, recently stated:  “In some countries censorship comes with the cash, and in others control comes with the students”. To test this claim, The Investigations Team sought through our findings to assess whether the increase in Chinese nationals as undergraduates and postgraduates was in fact very different from the overall increase of overseas students. As you will see below, this was the case to some degree; however, the discrepancy was marginal. Therefore, what seems to be exacerbating the perceived problem – which those on the more conservative end of the political spectrum have been championing – is not in fact the actual increase of overseas Chinese students, but rather the larger geopolitical shifts taking place.

Within Oxford, overseas students outside of the UK and EU in the year 2019-20 made up 40.88% of total fee income: equivalent to £64,327,133 per year. However, since 2011, Oxford’s overseas intake has only increased from 24.8% up to 28.0%. This is less  than the UK’s average rise. What’s more striking is the fact that 41.1% of postgraduate students at Oxford are from overseas, coinciding with the debate over joint research ventures which will be discussed later in this article. Nevertheless, as already stated, these statistics from Oxford are not anomalous against the wider trend of the internationalisation of the UK’s higher education institutions.

In terms of Chinese nationals specifically, the university’s total intake has increased from 2.7% to 6% since 2011, and postgraduate students have more than doubled, from 3.4% to 7.8%. Overall, the university gains £30 million annually in fees from Chinese nationals. Proportionally, therefore, there has been a greater rise in students from China (and in the related fees from these students) than the total increase in overseas students since 2011. 

Clearly it is the case that numbers of Chinese nationals have been growing fast, with graduate numbers doubling and postgraduate numbers more than doubling in the last ten years. This trend itself, however, is not problematic in and of itself, and overall overseas student numbers have been increasing not just on China’s part. What makes China’s international students unique, therefore, is not so much the numbers themselves but the shifting political landscape in which these students find themselves, a landscape of growing antagonism between China and the West. In 2020, the CCP attempted to boycott its students from attending Australian universities as a means of political leverage over the state. This particular confrontation arose from tensions concerning the origins of the Coronavirus into which Australia was keen to have a bilateral investigation. What is clear is that the cause for concern raised by some is not the proportion of Chinese students itself (or of any relative increase in international students) but rather the newer possibility of the CCP using this financial leverage as a form of soft power amid growing tensions.

The counter point, though, is that their reliance on overseas fees means that universities should do even more to attract this global demographic, thus continuing to internationalise higher education institutions.This powerful argument for export is reinforced by a consideration of the UK’s soft power: the UK’s educational institutions are a form of soft power, and to shy away from exporting such institutions is to shy away from having gravitas in research and innovation. The fact that we even have to ponder whether we have become over-reliant on some forms of overseas income is in many ways a privilege.

Overseas Fees + Fees From Chinese Nationals 

This data is evidence of the fact that the increase in students domiciled from China correlates with the wider increase, rather than acting as an anomaly.

Investment Into Oxford University

It is important to consider how funding from Chinese companies affects UK universities and plays into geopolitical concerns. In recent years, much controversy has surrounded Oxford and Cambridge concerning their funding from private companies based in China, some of which may have connections to the CCP.  For example, in 2019, Jesus College, Cambridge, was urged to cut its ties with China after it was revealed that they had accepted £200,000 from a Chinese government agency and £155,000 from Huawei. In a letter, the college JCR accused the college of not being “fully financially transparent” and that it “would always have been at risk from the CCP’s soft power information and influence campaigns”. In this case, three key problems were raised: financial transparency, academic freedom and political independence. This sort of backlash epitomises some of the decisions UK universities have been, and will continue to be, forced to confront in the current political climate.

Oxford University has also received funding from Huawei. After investigative work at The Blue, it was found that this amount was between £100,000 and £499,999. However, this funding was cut-off in January of 2019; donations were suspended for similar reasons as they were at Jesus College. Our freedom of information request revealed further relevant information regarding Chinese investment. Firstly, the company Tencent – which owns WeChat – has been donating to Oxford since 2017. Tencent is a powerful company within China. As the Atlantic stated, “Tencent (owner of the popular messaging platform WeChat) possess sweeping data on each Chinese citizen ”. There has already been controversy surrounding Tencent’s relationship with Oxford University, when it allegedly renamed its 120-year old Wykeham professorship in return from a £700,000 donation. The New Statesman asserted that “despite the assumption of academic independence, this financial support gives the Chinese government leverage over debate surrounding contentious events in China’s history”. Though we were unable to discern a precise figure, total donations from Tencent  lie somewhere between £500,000 and £2,499,995. The majority of this investment has gone into the departments of Statistics and Computer Science, although the university failed to provide any specific details as to exactly how this funding is being used.

Particularly striking was the fact that the information provided by Oxford concerning research grants from Chinese companies was rather bare-bones (see table under ‘Research Grants’, provided in response to our FOI). The university provided the number of investments and their approximate financial bracket but failed to give the names of the businesses themselves due to this constituting a “disproportionate burden” on themselves and their donors. Nevertheless, what the investigative team did find out was that – since 2011 – Oxford has received 20 research grants from Chinese companies: the overall minimum of which would be £2,425,000 and the potential maximum being £8,406,000. 

A further angle on the investment side of the Sino-Oxford relationship regards questions over scholarships and providing for Chinese nationals to study at the university. It was found that the Bright Oceans Corporation – a telecoms and energy company based in Beijing – donated between £1 million and £5 million for this purpose in the year 2015-16 alone. Moreover, the Chinese company Pacific Alliance has also invested up to £5 million since 2011 for ‘Scholarships/Student Support’: with eight investments in the £100,000-£499,999 bracket and twelve between £50,000-£99,000. These constitute substantial figures, and act as a financial manifestation of the university’s increasingly globalised relationship with China. 

There is no doubt that the growing rift between China and the West – part geopolitical cold war, part culture war, and part ethical dilemma – is playing out, albeit in a minor way, at Oxford University. The question  remains how valid concerns over the scale, focus, and origins of Chinese foreign investment are, and how dangerous it would be to reject such investment entirely. So far, the Johnson administration has tried to steer a middle-way policy, not deterring Chinese investment entirely and avoiding outright decoupling, whilst also being more assiduous when it comes to scrutinising who invests and into what areas (the UK and Oxford’s refusal of investment from Huawei being the obvious example).

Thus Oxford, which along with Cambridge in many ways embodies the UK’s institutionalised soft power of education, are likely to be be ever more scrutinised in this ambiguous debate over its finances. 

Investment From Private Chinese Companies Into Oxford University Since 2011 

Research Grants Since 2011 

Joint Research Ventures: Oxford & China 

Linked to the issue of funding is that of joint research between China and Oxford, and UK universities more generally. A recent KCL report suggested that China is “now representing an exceptionally high share of the UK’s research output in key scientific domains”. Once again, this question over joint research ventures with China is one that Oxford is acutely involved in. Below are the breakdowns of Chinese institutions with which the university is involved and the numbers of papers and projects Oxford and China have carried out since 2011 per ‘sensitive’ sector. Unsurprisingly, you won’t find many joint projects focused on radical interpretations of the Brontes or Milton but a large number of projects that engage with innovative and up-and-coming areas of science and technology. Whilst the case for collaboration in these areas is strong, for some it has also raised security fears and geopolitical concerns around sensitive research areas. Those on the more conservative end of the spectrum are wary of the fact that China is gaining unequivocal insights into some of the university’s most sensitive research areas. However, it is equally key to be wary of underestimating the importance of such collaboration.

Numbers of Oxford Joint Research Ventures with China Since 2011 per Key Sector

Physics and Astronomy3284
Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology1260
Materials Science945
Earth and Planetary Sciences617
Computer Science575
Chemical Engineering530

Chinese Institutions Involved in Oxford Research Since 2011

Chinese Academy of Sciences
Tsinghua University
Nanjing University
Shanghai Jiao Tong University
University of Science and Technology of China
University of Chinese Academy of Sciences
Institute of High Energy Physics Chinese Academy of Science
Shandong University
Sun Yat-Sen University
Ministry of Education China
Peking University
Fudan University

Of particular note among Chinese institutions involved in joint ventures with Oxford are the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Fudan University, and the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is the linchpin for China’s technological and natural sciences – home to over 80% of China’s large scale science facilities and approximately 56,000 professional researchers. Its recent achievements include breakthroughs in quantum communication and computing, progress in the study of re-emerging superconductivity, stem cell research and the development of brain intelligence. Oxford University has been involved with the Academy in various separate research ventures, including a project attempting to create genetically-modified rice which has higher photosynthetic efficiency. 

Another of Oxford’s Chinese partners, The Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, is responsible for the educational reform, compulsory education and examination courses within China. It is no surprise that the Chinese Ministry of Education is involved in propagating Chinese Premier Xi’ Jinping’s agenda: its very own website states that it aims “To direct the work of ideology and political education…and to direct the construction of the Party in institutions of higher learning”. In fact, the Ministry of Education has recently introduced ‘Xi Jinping thought’ into the national curriculum, from primary school to secondary school, in an attempt to help ‘teenagers establish Marxist beliefs’ and consolidate the Party’s role in society. 

Fudan University, with which Oxford recently conducted a joint research programme in air pollution and health outcomes, has witnessed a noteworthy transition. Although originally known for its liberal atmosphere, recent commentary suggests that it has increasingly come under pressure to ramp up censorship. In 2019, it removed the phrase “academic independence and freedom of thought” from its charter and replaced it with a “pledge to follow the Communist Party’s leadership”. Students protested, but footage of the protests has since been removed from Chinese social media. It has also added to the charter that it is “arming the minds of teachers and students with XI Jinping’s new era of socialist ideology with Chinese characteristics”. 

Having said this, it is imperative that the issue is not portrayed in binary terms. By looking at these three institutions, it’s easy to recognise that there is potentially room for both benefits and concern regarding Oxford’s relationship with them. However, it remains crucial to realise that, although Oxford’s research relationship with China has recently become more difficult to navigate, it is not dispensable: quite the opposite. A recent collaboration between the Oxford Department of Engineering Sciences and the Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research managed to create a COVID test which does not need to be processed by a lab. The innovative project received one of the Royal Academy of Engineering President’s Special Awards for Pandemic Service, and it is now used in Heathrow Airport. Furthermore, it was found that there has been an MoU to allow potential student and staff visits with China’s National University of Defence Technology. Hence what is often perceived as a one-way relationship in terms of collaboration is not quite so black and white, and it is important to take this into account when considering the impact of joint research ventures.

Other notable joint ventures involve scholarships and student exchanges which are becoming an increasingly important part of China and Oxford’s relationship, as well as proposals for joint research institutes. One collaboration between the Department of Engineering Science and Zhejiang University China will allow for the sharing of materials, short term funded fellowships at Zhejiang, and two full scholarships for Oxford students to enrol in Zhejiang’s Chinese Studies MA programme. Furthermore, a potential joint research institute with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the Nuffield Department of Medicine is being discussed – to be located at the Old Road Campus. There is also a visiting undergraduate student programme between Remnin University and Hertford College, allowing the former to send a small number of visiting students to Hertford every year. Again, these have the potential to be enriching and positive opportunities, which should not be shied away from.

Steering The Middle-Way

What is clear from this investigation is that the situation is shifting and complex: Chinese collaboration, often a force for good, enables Oxford and the UK to be globalised, dominant forces in technological and biological innovation. In the prism of growing anti-Chinese sentiment — as the ‘China vs West’ geopolitical drama is played out — the danger is that we become overly paranoid and in McCarthy-esc style scuttle into hysteria and, inevitably, technological isolationism. Yet it is also true that the context of these investments and joint research initiatives deserve our scrutiny.  So the question is not so much whether we should or shouldn’t collaborate with China full stop, but rather whether our current relationship – and by ‘our’ we mean the UK’s in general as well as Oxford’s – is balanced or in fact one-sided. 

The Investigations Team believe that Oxford has a proud legacy of discourse and that we should not shy from the major debates of the day – especially when they touch us. It is for these reasons that we have explored topical arguments around investment, the balance of university finances, and research programmes and have brought additional data acquired by our team into the mix. By addressing various concerns, The Investigations Team does not sanction them, but rather attempts to frame the information we have gathered within the context of a debate which – whether one agrees with it or not – is probably going to become more contentious as time goes on. In this way, the Team’s aim has been to add insight to this critical issue and to present the pre-existing questions and arguments which have already been propounded on either side of the various debates. We believe that, rather than avoiding discussion over the issue because of its sensitivity, it is better to confront the debate, offering new data from a relatively neutral standpoint. It is through debate, rather than evasion, that reactionary or extreme views can be avoided and counterbalanced. Ultimately, discourse is the only remedy to intolerance.

There is a well-known piece of foreign policy advice that Theodore Roosevelt once gave: “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Although the writers of this article have refrained from giving an opinion up until this point, this pithy quote reflects our fundamental stance on this issue. This is an important strategy for a cold-war-like-era. The United Kingdom may have a diminishing influence on the world stage, but in the politics of higher education it still holds sway; its approach to these issues is of great importance. If we shout too loudly and self-induce fiascos, we will lose our grounding and potentially throw away our indispensable educational, financial, and technological relationship with China. All the while, we must not forget the very tangible geopolitical backdrop and the fact that the West is now dealing with a highly efficient authoritarian regime. A combination of tolerance, awareness, and scrutiny is the way forward.