The China question: managing risks and maximising benefits

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The report – from the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government (M-RCBG) at Harvard Kennedy School, the Policy Institute at King’s College London, and Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, led by former Universities Minister Jo Johnson – examines the extensive relationship with China and calls for a more coherent strategy of measuring, monitoring and mitigating risks.

It reveals that out of 480,000 non-EU students studying with UK universities in 2019/20, more than a quarter were from China. UK universities have also increasingly collaborated with China over research output. For example, in the three key subjects that are automation and control systems, telecommunications, and materials science, collaborations with China represent more than 30% of all outputs.

Does this mean that UK universities are over reliant on China?

Trish D’Souza, who leads our education team, says the key is to diversify collaborations, not to end them.

There is concern that the UK higher education sector is not diversifying enough, and not collaborating with as broad a range of foreign countries as perhaps it should. Reducing immigration from China would obviously hit the Higher Education sector hard unless there are other opportunities and cross border relationships to replace it. So, simply decoupling from Chinese collaborations would be outside the public interest and frankly unviable.

However, the report suggests that the higher education sector should seek to stop relying so much on the higher tuition fee income from Chinese students to cross subsidise loss making research. Its authors recommend that the Office for Students should seek to monitor an overreliance on income from one foreign jurisdiction and require institutions to have recruitment diversification strategies.

This might all seem a tall order in the wake of the double whammy of Brexit and the pandemic on both domestic and international recruitment – but perhaps it is a sign that the UK Government want to develop universities to assist it with developing a greater range and spread of international partners for the benefit of the UK as a whole.

Can the UK’s new immigration system help universities, and employers, to attract such diversity?

Alex Christen, from our business immigration team, says new visa routes certainly bring some opportunities.

Despite Brexit, the UK higher education market is still held in high regard abroad. But undoubtedly, the pandemic has taken its toll with institutions seeking to sign up students to study within their country of origin rather than encouraging them to move to the UK.

One of the relatively new routes to work in the UK is the Global Talent visa, also dubbed the ‘tech talent’ visa. It allows current and future leaders in digital technology and other significant areas to work in the UK for up to 5 years. Applicants must either be endorsed by a designated organisation, or, from 6 April 2021, they can bypass the endorsement requirement if they have won a prestigious prize in their field.

The Graduate route (which is an entirely new route under the new immigration system due into effect this Summer) will be welcome news for employers too, as it is an unsponsored route. This means that there is no need for the business to apply for a licence – which can be both costly and cumbersome. It also enables the business to employ the visa holder in any role, regardless of skill or salary level.  It’s not a complete solution though, as the visa only lasts 2 or 3 years at the most. If the business wants to keep employing the individual once their visa expires, they will most likely need to sponsor them eventually.

These will both help ensure that UK higher education is as attractive to international students as it once was, with there being a greater possibility (for those who qualify) of entering, studying and then remaining in the UK on a longer-term basis. It’s also very likely to have a direct and positive impact on the numbers of international PhD students who seek to pioneer their research in the UK.

How we can help

If you’re from the higher education sector and would like to legal advice on your diversification strategy, please get in touch with Trish at

If you’re an employer and would like to discuss how to best take advantage of the new immigration system to recruit global talent, please contact Alex at