China in British education: The Natzler Report in historical perspective
The China Forum lecture on Wednesday 1 March 2023 was delivered by Professor Timothy H. Barrett (Emeritus Professor, SOAS China Institute and Japan Research Centre; and Member of the Centre of Buddhist Studies, SOAS, University of London).
In 2022 the Higher Education Policy Institute, the UK’s only independent higher education policy think-tank, produced a report entitled ‘Understanding China: The study of China and Mandarin in UK schools and universities’, written by Michael Natzler. Professor Barrett’s lecture examined the ‘Natzler Report’ in its historical context. The Beresford Report of 1899 was concerned that deficiencies in knowledge of the Chinese language were an impediment to British commercial success in China. The Reay Report resulted in the formation of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1916, which was intended to remedy those deficiencies in the national academic provision for studying China. The Willingdon Report of 1926 was concerned primarily with the disposition of the British portion Boxer indemnity funds. The bulk of the funds was assigned to the promotion of academic relations between Britain and China. However, the funds were insufficient to advance significantly the study of China in UK universities. The Scarbrough Report of 1947 addressed the study of Chinese language within the context of a wider examination of provision of training in Asian languages. In the wake of the report there took place a ‘flowering of British Sinology’. However, the funds ran out within five years. British Sinology was ill-equipped to understand China ruled by the communist party. The Hayter Report of 1961 aimed to fill this gap by adopting the American ‘Area Studies’ model, which combined intensive but brief language training in modern Mandarin, with economic and social science teaching, primarily at the postgraduate level. The Parker Report of 1986 examined the state of Sinology in the UK in the light of the ‘needs of commerce and diplomacy’.
The Natzler Report concludes that there is a serious lack of competence in Mandarin Chinese and understanding of China history and culture. This has a high potential cost for the UK economy and hinders mutual understanding between China and the UK. It notes that there has been a serious decline in single subject degrees in Chinese in British universities. It warns that employment prospects for graduates in Chinese are not good, and funds for studying in China itself are often inadequate. It warns that the deficit in cultural knowledge of China is a cause for concern at a time of rising tensions. It recommends that Chinese Studies should be reinstated as an area of strategic importance in British universities. The report recommends also that UK schools should address the lack of understanding of Chinese civilisation by introducing a dual track, where language study is supplemented with teaching on Chinese history, economics and society delivered in English.
The following issues were raised in the Q&A session: the merits of studying Mandarin language in schools and universities; the causes of the impoverished state of Chinese Studies in British universities; the impact of controls over Chinese universities and media upon the study of China in the UK; the view that ‘China is a strategic threat’, but ‘failure to understand China constitutes a strategic risk in the current geopolitical circumstances’; the appropriate age at which learning Chinese language should begin; and the relationship between the commercial opportunities offered by China’s continued economic growth and the need to increase knowledge of Chinese language and culture.
T. H. Barrett has been publishing on China since 1972, and is now Professor Emeritus of East Asian History, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Though he has mainly worked on the history of religion in East Asia, he has also long taken an interest in the development of the study of China in Britain, and has published on this topic also. Professor Barrett has been closely involved in organisations concerned with the furtherance of Chinese Studies, taking on, in the past, the chairmanship of the Universities’ China Committee in London and chairing the Asian Studies panels in two national Research Exercises. He has written for the London Review of Books, The Independent, and other publications, and contributed frequently to the radio programme ‘In Our Time’ and to other media.