Keith Burnett: Despite Hinkley Point, China is a land of opportunity for Yorkshire

Professor Sir Keith Burnett.
Professor Sir Keith Burnett.
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I’VE been talking to people in China about the UK. What do they think when they think about us?

We know they like Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Burberry and Morgan sports cars. But what else are they thinking about?

Well firstly, the Chinese are damn perplexed by the Brexit vote and worried about what it means for our relations with them. No surprise then at their relief in seeing that our new Government appears willing to work with China on projects like Hinkley Point. Phew!

And from my personal point of view, I’m delighted to have confirmed that one part of Britain, in addition to the Queen, is still revered in China.

Yes indeed. It is our schools and universities they think so highly of. Some Chinese parents are sufficiently well off to send their children to the UK without the family having to go without, but many more have to scrimp and save to send their children to this country.

They do this because we have a large number of universities with a global reputation for research and teaching. What is more, I know that Chinese parents want the challenging nature of UK higher education for their young ‘uns. The cachet of having been taught in the UK, in English, remains a big deal.

They are, however, truly perplexed when they hear that some people in Britain want to make it more difficult for their children to come to the UK, or wish to reduce university reliance on international students. They know they are paying often twice as much as British students and know this means they are subsidising our kids’ education. How can that be a problem? They also know they are paying the real market price for a prestige good that they want for their precious, and only, child.

Okay, I know, a UK parent may be asking why should our kids’ education have to suffer so that these foreigners can get access to our university? Why shouldn’t our kids get precedence? Could their education be damaged by studying alongside students who have English as a second language, bringing with them a different culture?

First, UK students pay a lot less, and I mean a lot. And how do you think our universities have been able to have first class facilities when fees are going steadily down in real terms? Because the money is being made up by international students, a great number of them from China.

And if you think about where your UK child might get a job in the future – don’t you think being able to work in teams and having a Chinese friend might be a good idea? China is a quarter of the world’s population and makes 40 per cent of the world’s goods. Do remember they will most likely not be able to move to Germany as easily post-Brexit. Chinese investors are also going to be key to lots of infrastructure projects around the UK.

This brings me back to my impressions of the UK in China. I am writing this piece from Shanghai where my university has signed an agreement between our engineers and the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology which works on China’s space programme.

China’s large modular space centre Tiangong 3 will launch in 2020 and is on target. This is a multi-billion pound project with international collaboration and exciting opportunities for engineers and scientists. We don’t want to cut off the opportunity for our children to be involved with the dynamism and opportunity of China over the decades to come.

Instead of worrying about how British we are, we need to seize the advantages for all of learning together. Our young people are getting a head start. This phase of our attractiveness to Chinese parents will wane as their own universities grow in global stature. This means we are in a unique time where China races to beat the rest of the world. We have to decide whether we will take this wonderful opportunity to educate a cohort of UK graduates in China, with all the associated benefits.

So I’m in the business of building better and stronger links so that Sheffield students, wherever they are from, get the chance to work with Chinese partners, whether it is in Shanghai or in Sheffield. We 
may have voted to leave the EU. We are not leaving the world. And it matters to our children’s future that we don’t allow anyone to have that impression, least of all China.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield.