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No growth in Chinese Studies graduates during China’s ascendancy

The Higher Education Policy Institute (@HEPI_News) is publishing a new report, Understanding China: The Study of China in UK schools and universities by Michael Natzler (HEPI Report 148), sponsored by the University of St Andrews.

The report reviews the current state of teaching and research on China in UK schools and universities. It reveals there is a consensus among UK-China policy experts, the Government and academics that it should be a priority to remedy the severe national deficit in China literacy and Mandarin speakers.

Based on interviews with over 40 individuals from education, government and business, the report makes recommendations to improve China literacy and increase the number of Mandarin speakers in the UK.

Despite the growth in importance of China in the world today, the number of Chinese Studies students has not increased in the past 25 years and this is reflected in the decline of Chinese Studies departments offering single-honours undergraduate degrees, which fell by around one-third from 13 to nine between 2019 and 2020.

There has been £50 million of public and private investment in Mandarin teaching for schools. However, the Pre-U in Mandarin Chinese is closing in 2023 so only the problematic A-Level will remain. Modern China is largely absent on school curricula and teachers often lack confidence teaching the area.

The report argues that the Government should publish a strategy to tackle what a top Foreign Office Civil Servant identified as the ‘generational challenge’ of building China literacy in the UK, the lack of which Lord (Jo) Johnson has identified as ‘The current single greatest failure of UK policy towards China’.

The other recommendations include:

  • the Office for Students should consider whether Chinese Studies should be included as a high-cost course to teach;
  • the Department for Education should ensure there will continue to be a suitable Level 3 qualification for school leavers and support the introduction of an A-Level in Chinese Civilisation; and
  • a small pot of funding should be made available to support the training of schoolteachers in modules that cover modern China.

Michael Natzler, report author and former Policy Officer at HEPI, said:

‘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. Early exposure to China in schools is vital for building a pipeline of China-literacy and increasing student numbers on Chinese Studies courses in higher education. While there are some promising Mandarin language programmes, there is a gaping hole in the curriculum for cultural study that could be filled by a new A-Level in Chinese Civilisation.’

In a guest Foreword, Rana Mitter, Professor of Chinese History and Politics at the University of Oxford, writes:

‘Post-Brexit Britain will want to enter new markets in Asia – and will have to learn how every single economy in the region has to take account of China’s presence. 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.’

Bahram Bekhradnia, Chair of the 1999 Review of Chinese Studies and President of HEPI, writes in the Afterword:

‘Our 1999 report focused exclusively on supply side issues, and the response focused on universities’ capacity in Chinese studies – and especially the availability of departments of Chinese in universities. This new report from HEPI makes it clear that, important though the supply-side may be, it is demand that is the critical factor. On the supply side, it is hugely disappointing that the Office for Students does not regard Chinese as a strategically important subject, but undoubtedly this report is correct in asserting that action is needed at school level – and indeed in the wider community – in order to boost demand and meet the challenge.’

Professor Sally Mapstone FRSE, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of St Andrews and Chair of HEPI, said:

‘The Chinese Studies programmes at the University of St Andrews, launched in 2021, are unique in offering opportunities for both undergraduate and postgraduate study on a wide range of subjects including literature, cinema, history, gender and identity issues. Our programmes also include courses on Hong Kong history and culture, and students have the opportunity to learn a second Chinese language in addition to Mandarin, either Cantonese or Hokkien.

‘The HEPI report provides a critical snapshot of the UK’s relatively slow progress on Chinese Studies, and where the country needs to be, and we are delighted to be sponsors of this important work.’

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