Last week, universities in Scotland were urged to reassess their reliance on income from Chinese students. This comes at a time when there is growing concern that Chinese aggression towards Taiwan and a Western retaliation may stop flights from China, hitting Scottish universities particularly hard. In Scotland, Chinese student fees make up 20% of total tuition income, as opposed to just 6% across British universities.
Speaking at Scottish Parliament earlier this year, Willie Rennie, MSP for St Andrews in the North East Fife constituency, asked the education minister what procedures were in place in the event that China invades Taiwan and the number of Chinese students coming to study in Scotland falls.
He said, “For the first time ever, the fees that come from international students for Scottish universities surpass domestic fees. The exposure, which is greater than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, is substantial. China invading Taiwan is not an unrealistic prospect, and we have large numbers of Chinese students here. The threat is real, and the threat is bigger here than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom”.
The education minister, Shirley-Anne Somerville responded by calling on the social and cultural benefits that the significant student recruitment of Chinese students brings to St Andrews as well as to many of Scotland’s universities. She said, “In Mr Rennie’s constituency, we see fantastic diversity around international students and what they bring to student and community life. However, institutions should consider whether they are overly reliant on one particular part of the international student market”.
At the University of St Andrews, applicants from Mainland China had a 16% higher offer rate for undergraduate programmes for entry in 2021, compared to the average rate of offers across all domiciles. According to data made available from a Freedom of Information request, 35% of the total number of applicants received offers compared to the 51% of offers given to the 1,196 applicants from Mainland China in 2021.
Yet, these figures have the potential to mislead – offers to Chinese students make up just 7% of total offers. The University has a remarkably equal distribution between the International, Scottish and Rest of UK (RUK) student population, with international students arriving from across the globe.
Whilst the proportion of Scottish students at St Andrews is less than that of the University of Glasgow, any calls to “rebalance” universities in Scotland – by limiting the number of Chinese students and creating more places for Scottish applicants – are blocked by the artificial cap on Scottish student places that are funded by the Scottish government.
The University of St Andrews called the model of funding in Scotland a “failure” for not keeping track with inflationary pressures. In the latest financial statement from July 2022, the University said that this relatively unchanging level of funding, “Increases reliance on income growth from other sources and is identified as one of the key risks for the University. It is noted that the Scottish Government, via the Scottish Funding Council, now only make a contribution towards the costs of educating home based students”.
There has been concern that Scottish universities have come to rely on increasingly unsustainable measures to achieve significant cross-subsidy from international fees. This is because funding by the Scottish government does not cover the cost of educating its home students.
One such measure can be seen in the Scottish universities which host Confucius Institutes. These are cultural programmes funded by the Chinese Ministry of Education, with the stated goal of public education on, and cultural promotion of, China. These are deeply controversial programmes that have become embroiled in allegations of espionage, surveillance of Chinese students abroad, and furthering the political agenda of the Chinese government.
At the Scottish universities which host these institutions, Chinese students contribute 31% of income, compared to 7% of income at Scottish universities that do not host a Confucius Institute.
Edinburgh University has accepted £6 million from the Chinese Ministry of Education, more than any other university in the UK, by hosting a Confucius Institute, according to The Herald. Glasgow, Strathclyde University, Heriot Watt, and Aberdeen also host the cultural programme and have accepted millions of pounds.
Tom Tugendhat, the UK security minister, told MPs in November last year that the government plans to close all Confucius Institutes throughout the UK which would fulfil a pledge made in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s election campaign. It is in this sense that there seems to be repercussions on relying on one majority international population to balance universities finances that have been hit hard since the pandemic and the unprecedented inflationary pressure.
In an interview with The Saint last year, Professor Gregory Lee, founding professor of Chinese Studies at the University of St Andrews, praised the University’s decision not to have a Confucius Institute.
Professor Lee said, “The approach of the Confucius Institutes is beginners’ Chinese, and to transmit an image of China that the Chinese government wants us to have, and that’s not good enough if you’re an academic. Only having one narrative is just not good enough”.
Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway have all closed down their Confucius Institutes.
Universities Scotland, the representative body of Scottish higher education in which Dame Sally Mapstone is executive convenor, responded to calls to reassess the model of funding for universities in Scotland amid concerns of a possible over reliance on Chinese tuition fees. A spokesperson for Universities Scotland said, “Universities in Scotland continuously monitor world events, from pandemics to military escalations and much more, to gain an understanding how it might impact recruitment, the welfare of existing students and operations more broadly”.
“The model of funding for universities in Scotland, where the higher education of Scottish students can only be sustained by significant cross-subsidy from international student fees, has risks that have been highlighted to both the Scottish government and Scottish parliament for a number of years”.
At the University of St Andrews, non-EU, international fees made up 65% of total tuition fee income in 2021, compared to the 4.8% portion of Scottish Home fees. Scottish student fees are capped at £1,820 and are funded by the Scottish government. Universities are told by the Scottish Government exactly how many Scottish students they can admit, and universities are fined if they do not adequately meet the figure they are given.
The University Financial Statement indicates that recruitment will increase in Europe, North America, China and India.
It states, “It has been apparent over the last year that we are in an inherently unstable period with a variety of economic and geo-political threats against which we must adjust and adapt to, to reposition ourselves in the best way to meet these uncertainties head on, using our size and associated agility to benefit us”.
The University told The Saint that they had no further comments to make.
Illustration: Marios Diakourtis