Skip to main content

“I supervised a Chinese PGR and when they returned home we built up a partnership with their new institution from there…”

“We’ve been working with this institution for so long nobody really remembers how it got started…”

“We met at a conference a few years ago, we didn’t have any links with China so it seemed best to start with someone we already knew…”

If any of these sound familiar, then it’s because they are very common stories in UK academic collaboration with China. One that I’ve heard from a variety of institutions and levels of seniority and almost always shortly followed by:

“… but”

The early 2000s were a scramble for collaboration with China. The 2008 Olympics and the excitement around BRICS, Rising Powers, the early stages of the Newton Fund and then the 2015 announcement of the Golden Era generated a huge amount of interest in new partnerships and collaborations. The Research Councils were funding new projects, China’s scholarly output doubled, and the Government lifted the cap on student numbers so that China was rapidly becoming the largest source of international students in the UK. The opportunities for growth seemed endless and I’m sure many people across the sector were looking at the profound changes China was going through and felt that if they didn’t move soon, they would miss their chance.

Time-pressure (whether perceived or actual is irrelevant), coupled with a lack of baseline knowledge about China, directly impacts the quality of decision-making. It’s therefore not to surprising that I’ve often found myself in conversations – with both individual academics and senior leadership teams – that are concerned about the way partnerships are playing out. Especially those that are based on those serendipitous personal links, mainly through either a Chinese colleague that had moved back to China, joint supervision, or conference attendance.

Personal relationships are a strong basis on which to build collaboration.

They are the foundation of successful communication and essential to addressing the challenges inherent in a cross-cultural, cross-jurisdictional partnership.

But they are not a substitute for strategy.

Over the years I’ve come to see that many of these problems – and others such as export control risks – stem from a lack of knowledge and strategy in those early decisions that have magnified over time. And I believe this lack of informed strategy continues to be one of key challenges facing the UK higher education sector’s engagement with China.

Over-reliance on these kinds of ‘serendipitous partnerships’ also opens the risk that your institution, a specific team, or individual, was intentionally approached. Or just that you’ve ended up working with an institution that doesn’t align with your strategic goals, lacks strength in the areas you are looking for, lacks the resources needed to deliver the project successfully, etc.

There have been many reports that highlight the need for deeper knowledge of China and call for a renewed Government strategy for engagement. Such a published strategy would be helpful to guide institutions in their decision making, and their risk management. But while Government guidance is important, these reports miss the fact that institutions, faculties, schools, and individual academics should equally have developed their own knowledge of potential partners and informed strategic plans for engagement.

To be able to develop good strategy, you first need to understand the context in which you are working, but knowledge of China has always been a rare capacity across the UK. This is especially challenging for smaller institutions that lack the resources to hire full time staff to focus on specific countries or regions.

That’s why I am launching Noble Endeavours to share my experience with the sector through flexible service models that will meet your requirements and budgets. I will be offering one off training as well as a subscription service to be your expert on China-facing issues and questions.

It is vital for universities to maintain their knowledge and engagement with China. But to do so effectively, they need to be more informed about the Chinese higher education system, and therefore better able to develop informed strategy to develop secure, sustainable partnerships.

I hope that we can work together in the future to do just that.