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Marking 40 Years of UK-China Student Mobility

9 December 2014

By Joseph Taylor, Senior Policy Officer for Asia at the UK HE International Unit

The UK-China Mobility Forum took place on Friday 21 November, preceded on Thursday 20 November by the UK-China HE Forum VI. These meetings saw explicit recognition from representatives of both countries of the importance and benefit of academic exchange at a personal, organisational and national level, and a statement of continued commitment to support future exchange. However, though the feeling was positive there was recognition that there has been an imbalance in mobility between the two countries.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics list figures of inbound students from China to the UK in 2010, 2011 and 2012 as 55,496, 65,906 and 76,913 respectively. In contrast the numbers from the UK going to China for those years were 3,311, 3,539 and 4,245. Despite the difference in scale the trend is toward greater mobility from the UK. Over the three year period the rate of increase of students travelling to China grew from 7% (for the 2010 - 2011) period to 20% (2011-2012). The number of UK students studying in China in 2013 grew further to 5465, a rate of increase of approximately 29%. This trend is expected to continue, in part a natural consequence of the growing interest created by the continued 'rise of China'. However, without appropriate support mechanisms and awareness in place it is difficult for students to pursue this interest though academic exchange.

Both events were organised by the British Council and the Chinese Ministry of Education with support from the International Unit. The UK-China HE Forum VI took the form of a policy dialogue, including senior representatives from UK and China universities, whilst the UK-China Mobility Forum was more ceremonial in tone, including keynote speeches from the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Liu Xiaoming and outgoing CEO of the British Council, Sir Martin Davidson. The International Unit's Assistant Director for Policy, Dan Shah, spoke at both events, discussing the role Quality Assurance in the UK system, and participating in a moderated panel of university leaders from the UK and China that included the International Unit's Chair Professor Colin Riordan.

The International Unit is working with the UK sector to promote outward student mobility through its Go International programme. The Unit developed the UK Strategy for Outward Mobility at the request of BIS, and is working with higher education institutions, Government and sector organisations to achieve an increase in the proportion of UK domiciled students accessing international mobility as part of their higher education. Many mobility schemes exist with a focus upon China, including, notably, the British Council's Generation UK-China initiative which aims to increase the number of students in China, beyond the current rate of growth, to 15,000 by 2016.

If the British Council's 2016 target is to be met it will be vital for the sector, business and Government to continue to effectively promote outward mobility amongst UK students. Participants at both events noted that outwardly mobile students tend to be from relatively wealthy backgrounds. Though a range of scholarships and financial support exists to support students participating in one of the forms of study and/or work experience available in China, there may be more work to be done to increase awareness of these and address the anxieties of those that students would like to participate in international exchange but for social and/or financial reasons find the prospect initially daunting. 

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