China leaders issue personal invitation to British youth
Envoys' visit to UK signals internationalisation's importance to Asian giant. John Morgan reports
The scene is familiar enough: a student-recruitment fair featuring stalls and banners from 15 universities all hoping to tempt the prospective undergraduates milling around.
But this is not the usual overseas operation by British or US universities: this is the first such event to be held in the UK by Chinese institutions, and a sign of their new priorities as they look to boost their reputations by expanding international recruitment.
A group of the institutions' presidents and vice-presidents attended the Study in China Exhibition and Student Forum. The event was organised by the Chinese Ministry of Education and the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange, and was held at the Institute of Education, University of London on 28 October.
It marked the culmination of a week-long visit that included a summit with British vice-chancellors hosted by the UK's education secretary, Michael Gove.
Speaking to Times Higher Education at the exhibition, Cui Xiliang, president of the Beijing Language and Culture University, said his institution was seeking "opportunities to enhance links with universities in the UK".
The chance to study Mandarin at the university was "very attractive for UK students", he added.
Professor Cui said his institution attracts about 10,000 international students a year, the "largest body of international students in China".
Asked why he was keen to attract UK students, he answered, perhaps surprisingly, that they are "very good at learning Mandarin".
On Beijing Language and Culture's strategic priorities, Professor Cui said that at present the institution "is not very big in China" and that he would like it to "grow taller, rather than fatter".
To that end, the institution also wants to build links with Africa, he added.
Also in attendance was Sun Bing, deputy dean of the International Cultural Exchange School at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, who said that China had traditionally attracted the bulk of its overseas students from South Korea.
"It is equally important to attract students from every country," she said, speaking through an interpreter.
But the Chinese envoys acknowledged that there were obstacles in the way of their efforts to recruit UK students, a group often seen as more reluctant to study abroad than their peers in other countries.
"We did some research and the biggest [hurdle] is the language barrier for students coming from Europe," Dr Sun said. "Chinese is very difficult for them."
With this in mind, overseas students at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics are now being given the opportunity to study their courses in English. Indeed, for the final two years of their degrees, domestic students are also taught English, except for courses in Chinese history.
Joanna Burke, China director for the British Council, which supported the event, studied Mandarin at Beijing Language and Culture during her University of Leeds degree.
While the UK needs its students to understand China given the nation's "importance in the world", she said, Chinese universities "want to increase their world reputation".
"Internationalisation is a key element of that. You're not going to build a world-class university if you don't attract international talent," she added.
But surely the Chinese want to get closer to the US, rather than the UK, in higher education terms?
"Yes, they do look to the US," Ms Burke acknowledged. But she argued that the UK academy is China's biggest partner in Europe, recognised for its quality and its "dynamic environment".
She highlighted the "huge value of university partnerships, student and teacher exchange, and joint research" between British and Chinese institutions.
Ms Burke added: "Two UK universities [Nottingham and Liverpool] have the only overseas campuses in China. There is a privileged status for the UK."
Last week, Lancaster University announced that it was also launching a campus in the country, to be based in Guangzhou and run in partnership with Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.
The Chinese government recently outlined an education strategy for the period up to 2020, and internationalisation is a major element, Ms Burke noted.
"There is also government funding behind scholarships for students to come to China," she added.
Ms Burke called for a credit-exchange programme between UK and Chinese universities to allow greater student mobility, which she said would be a "major step forward and something we want to work towards".
Backing up the British Council's aim to encourage greater outward mobility for UK students in a globalised society, Ms Burke said her own time as a student in China "was the best year of my life and the one that changed my life".