Chinese students pose during a graduation photo at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP

Over the last few years the strength of China has manifested itself in many different forms, aside from being the world’s second-largest economy, most notable the fact that its population accounts for just under a fifth of the total pollution of the world. Interestingly enough, the Chinese make up the majority international students around the world with over 600,000 of its brightest minds educated abroad every year.

Nevertheless, there is a high risk that this progress might be impeded by the current climate of political tensions between the West and China, which have been amplified by the Covid-19 uncertainty.

Last year US universities woke up to the grim reality of a sharp decline in enrollment by Chinese international students caused by the trade war between Washington and Beijing, ultimately leading to harsher immigration policies.

A report by the Association of International Educators titled “Losing Talent: An Economic and Foreign Policy Risk America Can’t Ignore” confirms this fact, as its “data show that international students and scholars feel less safe and less welcome in the US than the previous year surveyed.”

The report adds: “University and industry leaders acknowledge that anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies contribute to a chilling effect on international study in the US.”

Because of Donald Trump’s concerns related to allegations of intellectual-property theft made toward Chinese students, in May the US president issued an executive order suspending their entry to the country.  

“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is engaged in a wide-ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernization and capability of its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA),” the order stated. 

Those students are “detrimental to the interests of the United States,” it said, and “their entry should be subject to certain restrictions, limitations, and exceptions.” The order includes holders of F and J visas but does not include undergraduate students or green-card holders.

Understandably, this series of unfortunate events led many Chinese students to choose other foreign study destinations that offer easier career and immigration pathways, such as the UK, or rethink moving from their home country at all.

In the case of Britain, a recent survey published by one of China’s top educational firms, New Oriental Education, for the annual report on Chinese Students’ Overseas Study shows that 42% of its participants favored the UK as a study destination, whereas the US was the preferred choice for only 37%, a 6-percentage-point decrease from last year. The survey collected 6,673 samples in 34 provinces in China.

Also, the strong incentive for the Chinese students willing to pursue their education abroad is the UK’s re-established work visa policy which allows international students to stay in the country for two years after graduation.

The policy seems to be very pragmatic and sensible, bearing in mind that China now sends more students than any other country, inside or outside the European Union, to the UK.

According to the latest findings of the “Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2018/19” bulletin, “China sent more students to the UK than any other overseas country. In 2018/19, 35% of all non-EU students were from China. The number of students from China was also 34% higher in 2018/19 than in 2014/15, increasing from 89,540 to 120,385 in the five-year span.”

As The Guardian recently reported, the very impressive number of Chinese students is an important source of income for universities because international students pay fees two to three times as high as UK students, as well as significant factor in the expansion of Britain’s most prestigious universities.

But can these impressive prospects be taken for granted? Sadly, the answer is no.

According to a survey by the British Council carried out between March 27 and April 3, 60% of Chinese students who have already applied to study in the UK next year were either likely to cancel their plans or have yet to decide, and about 40% of those already studying outside China were either unlikely to return or might still decide not to travel back for their studies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Asked about their concerns over applying to the UK, 79% said that they were very concerned about health and well-being; 87% were very concerned about personal safety and 86% were concerned about finances.

“This will be a challenging year for international higher education, globally and in the UK,” said the British Council’s senior adviser on education research, Michael Peak.

“We know that international students are incredibly resilient, but like everyone at this time, they need support and reassurance that whenever they engage with UK education, they will be part of a high-quality learning experience.”

In its updated version of the survey released on June 8, the British Council estimated that UK universities will likely have nearly 14,000 fewer new enrollments from East Asia in 2020-2021 compared to the 2018-19 academic year, leading to a decline of £463 million (US$577 million) in spending on tuition and living expenses.

Worryingly, “The China Virus (No, Not That One)” described by a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Michael D Swaine, in an op-ed for The National Interest seems to be spreading also among the British political class, which appears to be increasingly concerned with the UK academic institutions’ openness toward Chinese students who often rely on postgraduate scholarships funded by their government.

The toxic mood felt in Westminster’s corridors of power has been translated into real policy recommendations by a former adviser to ex-prime minister Theresa May, Will Tanner, published by the Onward think-tank.

Specifically, the research advocates establishing the numerus clausus on the admission of Chinese (frequently applied to Jews in the past), which makes the decision to pursue education abroad even more difficult faced with this highly hostile narrative.

Interestingly, this seems to be a common trend among the Anglosphere countries, as (besides the US and UK) Australia had also been expressing its concerns over students from China even before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Arguably, it was the release of a report titled “The China Student Boom and the Risks It Poses to Australian Universities” published by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) that has led to debate not only in Australia, but other countries as well – including the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s report titled “A Cautious Embrace: Defending Democracy in an Age of Autocracies” (predominantly aimed at students from China).

It is also worth mentioning that Salvatore Babones, who happens to be an adjunct scholar with the CIS and author of the Australian report, is continuing his unholy crusade against students from China by openly attacking Western academic institutions and advocating to change their behavior toward this particular ethnic group in a recent article titled “It’s Time for Western Universities to Cut Their Ties to China,” published in Foreign Policy magazine.

As it was rightly observed in February by Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, the Covid-19 outbreak “set off a disturbing wave of prejudice against people of Chinese and East Asian ethnicity.”

With the increasing violence and hostile rhetoric aimed at students from China being caught up in geopolitical tensions between the Western governments and Beijing over the future of Hong Kong and the role of Huawei in establishing a global fifth-generation (5G) telecommunications network, the prospect of scaring off these students from Western universities becomes ever more realistic.

As for the UK, which has more Chinese students than any other country and who account for £1.7 billion in tuition fees every year, “it could be pretty catastrophic for many universities,” said Vivienne Stern of Universities UK, the main trade body for British academia.

Stern added that the government’s response to the universities’ request for a bailout had been “not unhelpful,” but no extra money had been pledged, and so the financial threat to the sector remains.

In the US, where almost 400,000 Chinese people were studying last year, “universities have been trying to diversify their portfolio by making forays into other big countries like India. But India just doesn’t have the kind of purchasing power that China has,” Gaurav Khanna, assistant professor of economics at the University of California San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, told The PIE News.

“US universities, especially public universities, really need students from China, particularly as state governments are cutting funding. At a time of recession, the first thing in the state budget to go is higher education. They can’t cut Medicaid or roads or K-12,” Khanna continued.

“And now there’s a recession again. It’s only expected that states will cut money again and so universities will need more revenue from abroad.”

With the Covid-19 pandemic severely weakening economies around the globe and the UK’s and United States’ poor handling of it, it appears that some believe that applying more pressure by discriminating against students from China makes strategic sense.

Quite opposite to these assumptions, it appears that pursuing this policy may not only prove to be an economic shot in the foot, but it could also trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy by creating hostile attitudes among ordinary Chinese vis-à-vis the West – something that would definitely play into hands of the Communist Party of China’s hawkish apparatchiks.

With the geo-economic and geopolitical stakes being unprecedentedly high, I doubt we can afford to lose the Chinese students.

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Adriel Kasonta

Adriel Kasonta is a London-based foreign affairs analyst and commentator. He is the founder of AK Consultancy and editorial board member at the peer-reviewed Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS) in Prague. Kasonta is a former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at Bow Group, the oldest conservative think tank in the UK.