Image of Photo of Rt Hon Lord Willetts

Links between Britain and China in Higher Education and research

The China Forum lecture on Thursday 26 January 2023 was delivered by The Rt Hon Lord Willetts, President, Resolution Foundation; Visiting Professor, King's College London; former Minister for Universities and Science (2010-2014); and former MP for Havant (1992-2015).

Lord Willetts’ lecture examined the changed relationship between China and the UK in higher education and research. He recalled the deep historical and cultural connection between Britain and China, including Joseph Needham and Xu Zhimo in Cambridge, and David Cameron’s ‘Golden Era’, which included a close relationship between Vodafone and Huawei. A number of factors have contributed to a worsening relationship. Lord Willetts argued that China has tightened controls on freedom of expression, abandoned the two-term limit for the top leader and taken action to restrict aspects of freedom in Hong Kong. America’s security strategy has changed radically. For decades the USA led the world in technology so that a large standing army was unnecessary. China’s rapid technological progress has caused a massive shift in American security concerns. Britain has left the EU and wants to promote the concept of ‘Global Britain’. However, Brexit makes Britain more vulnerable to US influence, particularly in security. Individual EU countries, notably Germany, have maintained a strong research cooperation with China. Meanwhile, American security concerns are an increasingly strong influence on research policy in the UK. Lord Willetts examined the implications for UK universities and research arising from the National Security and Investment Act 2021. He noted that current UK policy does not exclude cooperation with China.

Lord Willetts then turned to the UK’s higher education policy. The government set a target of attracting 600,000 overseas students to Britain’s universities by 2030, but it has already achieved the target. Annual revenue from international students is almost £30 billion, with Chinese students comprising about a quarter of the total. Income from international students is crucial to the viability of UK university research. For certain departments overseas students ensure their survival. There are almost 6,000 Chinese nationals who are academic staff in British universities. They are the co-authors of a large number of academic papers. UK research has become heavily reliant upon funding from overseas students, with China the largest component. UK universities would be vulnerable to a major international crisis, such as conflict over Taiwan. Consequently, the government would prefer that the proportion of overseas students from China was reduced.

The Q&A session addressed the following issues: the impact of the change in the UK-China relationship upon international research collaboration in UK universities; the nature of ‘Chinese characteristics’ in China’s higher education system; sources of funding for students from China attending UK universities; the unbalanced flow of students between China and the UK; the influence of the Cold War upon the UK-China relationship; discrimination against Chinese students in the UK; the impact of Brexit upon the UK’s relationship with the USA and China in higher education; the impact of the war in Ukraine upon the UK-China relationship; and the reasons for the USA’s intensifying security concerns over China.

The Rt. Hon. Lord Willetts FRS is the President of the Resolution Foundation.  Lord Willetts is Chair of the UK Space Agency, a Board member of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and a visiting Professor at King’s College London. He serves on the Board of DarkTrace plc, the Biotech Growth Trust and is Co-Chair of SynBioVen. He is the chair of Innovate Cambridge. He is the Chancellor of the University of Leicester and an Honorary Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

He served as the Member of Parliament for Havant (1992-2015), as Minister for Universities and Science (2010-2014) and previously worked at HM Treasury and the No. 10 Policy Unit.

Lord Willetts has written widely on economic and social policy. His book A University Education is published by Oxford University Press. A second edition of his book The Pinch on fairness between the generations was published in 2019.