Universities in major countries have come to rely on Chinese students for enrolment, dependent to some extent on them to balance budgets and, in some cases, fill empty seats. A significant number of postdoctoral researchers, necessary for staffing research laboratories and who sometimes teach, also come from China. But China's global higher education role is about to change significantly " with implications for the rest of the world.
One-third of the 1.1 million international students in the US are from China. Similar proportions are found in some of the major receiving countries, such as Australia (38 per cent) and the UK (41 per cent of non-EU students). This has created an unsustainable situation of overdependence.
There are also major challenges relating to China's Confucius Institutes and Chinese participation in research in several host countries, as well as other issues. In short, there are a number of key points of conflict and crisis that are affecting China's higher-education relations with important partners.
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Notably, China's footprint in the sector is huge. It is by far the biggest exporter of students, with more than 600,000 studying abroad in 2017. Moreover, China is itself active as a host of international students in higher education. About 490,000 students from abroad, the large majority from other Asian countries, are studying in China. The multibillion-dollar "Belt and Road Initiative" has a significant higher-education component.
Within China, several important transformations are taking place. Demographic trends combined with the dramatic expansion of its higher-education system mean there are now more opportunities for study in the country. Billions have been spent upgrading the top 100 or more Chinese universities. Geographically mobile students will find China's best universities more accessible than ever.
But at the same time, there are significant new restrictions on academic freedom and a "shrinking" of intellectual space in China. Ideology has reclaimed a more central place in academic life, and access to information, never fully available, is now better monitored and controlled with new technologies.
Further, academic collaboration arrangements with foreign universities are slowing within China. Last summer, 234, or one-fifth, of its international university partnerships were closed, including more than 25 with American institutions " many of which were inactive anyway.
Finally, the idea of "liberal education", for a while popular in elite universities, has been called into question. In short, for both internal political reasons and as a reaction to foreign criticism, especially from the United States, China is likely to become less open to international collaboration with top-tier universities.
China itself has come under increasing suspicion and pressure from abroad. The US, for example, has tightened rules for Chinese visa holders in some STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields while the FBI has highlighted academic vulnerabilities to Chinese espionage.
A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has warned that collaboration between academic scientists in the West and People's Liberation Army scientists is providing research on artificial intelligence and other areas to "rival militaries". US President Donald Trump has even called Chinese students and academics in the US "spies" " hardly encouraging for scientific cooperation.
Confucius Institutes, which have been established at more than 100 American universities and number more than 500 worldwide, have come under heavy criticism recently. A US Senate report has recommended more transparency in the contracts between Hanban, the Chinese agency managing the institutes, and American universities.
Several institutes have been closed recently, and more are under review. What started out as an effort to popularise Chinese culture and teach Chinese language on foreign campuses, while clearly part of China's soft-power initiatives, is now seen by some as a potentially dangerous foreign agency on campuses.
China's efforts to impose censorship on Western academic journals in China has received widespread publicity and condemnation in the West. Pressure on the prestigious China Quarterly and its publisher, Cambridge University Press, to censor 300 online articles resulted in their removal " only to be restored after widespread criticism among Western academics. These controversies have contributed to a negative image of China.
Beijing will almost certainly react against the anti-China rhetoric and actions evident in many Western countries. Chinese authorities may try to curtail outward student mobility to some extent " through specific policies, "guidance" from the government and media, and financial pressure, such as cutting back on the China Scholarship Council and the other rather limited scholarship programmes offered, or tinkering with the local job market for returning graduates.
It is quite likely that the numbers of Chinese students going abroad to several of the key receiving countries will slow or even decline. Overall numbers of Chinese students, including the number of newly enrolled doctoral students, have already started to decline, a likely forerunner of future trends.
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Mobility trends largely unrelated to the political situation will also create serious problems. For example, the less prestigious colleges and universities will see significant declines as a smaller number of Chinese students compete for places in top institutions " or choose to remain at home. In the US, there is already a shift of Chinese students away from schools in the middle of the country, places perceived as "pro-Trump" and perhaps less friendly to outsiders.
It is quite possible that China will tighten regulations relating to foreign branch campuses operating in China or even make it impossible for them to function. Similar restrictions are likely to be placed on foreign research centres operating in China.
While it is impossible to exactly predict the future of China's higher-education relations with the rest of the world, it is clear that, at least for the countries that have had the closest academic relations with China and have received the large majority of Chinese students, there will significant negative developments.
Philip G. Altbach is founding director and research professor at the Centre for International Higher Education, Boston College, US
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