Teach UK students about China to tackle knowledge ‘deficit’, say experts

Experts have called for additional government funding to build “China competency” in the UK education system in the face of “a severe national deficit” in China literacy and Mandarin speakers.

Despite the growing importance of China in the world, research by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) concluded the UK lacks sufficient knowledge and understanding of China to “make sensible decisions”.

The report cited the government’s decision to remove Huawei from UK networks in light of perceived security risks, which was estimated to cost BT £500m, “a cost that arguably could have been avoided if there had been greater understanding and awareness of China within the UK government”.

According to Hepi, the number of Chinese studies students has not increased in the past 25 years and there has been a decline in the number of Chinese studies departments in UK universities offering single-honours undergraduate degrees, down a third from 13 to nine between 2019 and 2020.

In schools, modern China is “largely absent” from curricula and most pupils will not engage with China at all during their studies. There has been some progress in the study of Mandarin in schools, but the qualifications are “problematic”, the Hepi report says, and numbers are small.

While there is strong research and expertise in universities, it is often the result of hiring of specialists from the rest of the world. Chinese specialists, meanwhile, face challenges around academic freedom and universities “are not sufficiently transparent” about funding sources.

The Hepi report is based on interviews with more than 40 experts in education, government and business. Academics who were interviewed agreed that despite the controversy surrounding Confucius Institutes, they have played a critical role in the teaching of Mandarin in the absence of other investment.

The report calls for the government to publish a strategy to tackle what has been described as a “generational challenge” to build China literacy in the UK, and consider targeted funding for Chinese studies in universities and investment to help train school teachers in modules that cover modern China.

Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history and politics at the University of Oxford, writing in the report, said: “In a post-Covid world, the way that China responds to questions relating to everything from science funding to global supply chains will have direct impacts on the UK.

“As in any democratic society, there will be varied views in the British public sphere on how to deal with China. Those views will often be robustly expressed, as is only right in a free society. But those conversations and debates can no longer afford to take in a swift and superficial view of China. The time to deepen the debate has surely arrived.”

The author of the report, Michael Natzler, added: “Regardless of the levels of scepticism or support for China’s activities today, there is an expert consensus that the UK lacks sufficient knowledge and understanding of China to make sensible decisions. This is an issue that is long overdue for being addressed.”