UCL News


Provost's update – UCL and China: De-risking and engaging

30 May 2023

An update from Dr Michael Spence, reflecting on his recent trip to China.

UCL President & Provost, Michael Spence, at UCL East

Dear colleagues,

I have not long returned from my first trip to mainland China post-pandemic. It was a fascinating visit that involved meetings with alumni, a reception for parents of current and prospective students, talks to prospective graduate students, meetings with potential donors and with university and other research partners. The first day I had a breakfast meeting, two morning meetings, a lunch meeting, two afternoon meetings, a reception and a dinner, and the pace didn’t let up during the rest of the trip! But I came back energised, and more convinced than ever that this is the time to be advancing, not retreating from, working with the Chinese academic community, including engaging with prospective students and their influencers.  

One thing from the trip was clear. After the long, painful Covid shutdowns, China is back in business. Walking down the Nanjing Rd to the Bund in Shanghai it was clear that the energy and excitement of that remarkable and creative city had returned. Things in China have undoubtedly changed in all sorts of ways, but the sheer dynamism of the country, something it is difficult to feel from outside, was evident in spades. Another thing that was clear from almost everyone we met was that the Chinese are keen to know who is willing to work with them to build a shared future, who by contrast is intent on ‘de-coupling’ and what exactly that means.

In answering that question for UCL, I think we need to take a nuanced approach: one that is fully engaged, but also alert to the risks of partnering with a country whose political values and geopolitical interests we do not always share. In doing so, we are not far out of line with the approach to engagement with China that the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly outlined in his Mansion House address on 25 April this year. This continues a more helpful direction of travel reflected in the Integrated Review Refresh, categorising China as a challenge but not a threat. Even the United States, as Jami Miscik, Peter Orszag and Theodore Brunzei recently pointed out in Foreign Affairs, is now advocating an approach to engagement that involves ‘de-risking, not decoupling’.

For us, ‘de-risking’ starts with ensuring that we abide by the UK law governing all foreign collaborations. That goes without saying. But it also means taking our own research ethics with us into any partnership overseas and making sure that projects in which we are engaged are conducted in a way with which we would be comfortable. This may mean, for example, not using an otherwise attractive data set because the data has not been collected under a consent regime that we think broadly acceptable. Again all that goes to some extent without saying, but it does give guidance to the kinds of overseas collaborations in which we ought to be engaged, and those regarding which we might be more cautious.

Beyond these constraints, if UCL is to remain ‘London’s Global University’, and if we are to solve some of the transnational problems that we face, we must be fully committed to working with our academic partners overseas, and particularly involved in the Chinese research ecosystem. Some of UCL’s most impactful collaborations with China have been in health challenges that make a difference across borders, for example our work with Peking University on the development of treatments to prevent babies suffering from spina bifida. Chinese research is growing at a breath-taking speed, scale and quality. Even the China-hawk, defence-community-funded, Australian Strategic Policy Institute recently claimed that:

“Our research reveals that China has built the foundations to position itself as the world’s leading science and technology superpower, by establishing a sometimes stunning lead in high-impact research across the majority of critical and emerging technology domains.  … China’s global lead extends to 37 out of 44 technologies that ASPI is now tracking….”

If the likely bias of the source is allowed for, and we moderate these claims by even a factor of two, it is still clear that there are many areas in which the significant investment of the Chinese government in research, especially in emerging technologies, is beginning to pay dividends. If we are to remain globally competitive, and if we are to tackle shared problems such as those presented by the U.N. Sustainable Development goals, we cannot ‘de-couple’ from China. The hubris of thinking we could address those issues without partnership of around 20% of the world’s population, and one of its fastest growing research communities and economies, is simply astounding.

Fortunately, that is not the desire of our Chinese partners either! Everywhere we went, we were met with respect for UCL and with a real desire to engage in both joint teaching and research. We also saw the fruit of many years of collaboration across a whole range of disciplines. And we met with members of our strong and deeply connected alumni community, many of whom now work at our partner universities, who were keen to be advocates for us in that country and to build bridges between the UK and China.

Which takes us to the question of Chinese students at our university. Some of you will have read that the Office for Students recently expressed reservations about the dependence of some universities on a concentration of students from particular countries, by which they must mean China. China sends about three times more students abroad for higher education than any other country every year, so they inevitably make up a sizeable proportion of almost all international student cohorts in the UK. As I recently said in the New Statesman:

“Chinese students who study at UK universities make a huge contributions to our country, socially and culturally. They bring fresh ideas, a diverse cultural and social perspective, and extensive global networks, which benefit UK students. When they return home to China, the ties and understanding they take back with them provide a considerable soft-power benefit to the UK. “People-to-people” links between our countries continue to help us develop intercultural understanding. We should remember this when considering nuanced ways of engaging with and influencing China. We must also remember the importance of these connections to help tackle the rise in anti-Asian racism that we have seen in the West, which has been linked to increasingly heated rhetoric on relations with China.”

And that, of course, is before we begin to consider the economic benefits that Chinese students bring, not only to our universities, but also to our broader communities. International students are estimated by Universities UK to bring over £25 billion a year to the national economy. The report by London Economics on UCL’s economic impact found that the contribution generated by UCL’s international students in the 2018/19 cohort amounted to £1.7bn in 2018/19 alone.

We cannot assume that Chinese students will travel abroad to study in their current numbers forever, especially with changing Chinese demographics and the growing attractiveness to students of staying home for their university experience. For this reason, we must also make every effort to retain our share of the very best and brightest of the Chinese students who are, by any measure, extremely talented. We need to focus on Chinese student recruitment, to make sure that we retain our share of the very best students, and also that the particular learning, wellbeing and student experience needs and expectations of Chinese students are well met while they are here. I have been really impressed by the work that has been happening in the Department of European and International Social and Political Studies on helping teachers around the university develop the cultural competence to deal effectively with Chinese students, skills that are translatable to other cohorts as well.

So from my point of view, amidst all the rather unhelpful noise about China at the moment, we as an institution should remain committed to our relationships in that fascinating country. We should also remain committed to nurturing the academic and personal development of our wonderful Chinese students. And we should be telling the story more broadly of the considerable benefits of engagement. ‘De-risking, not de-coupling’ has to be the mantra for the way forward, or better, ‘de-risking and engaging’.

Your thoughts, as always, are extremely welcome and can be sent to president.provost@ucl.ac.uk.

Update on our Disagreeing Well programme

In my message in March to you, I shared some thoughts and posed some questions about how we can manage disagreement and diverse views in our community. I wrote about the start of a 'disagreeing well' initiative, based on the understanding that there will always be strong differences of opinion at UCL and that positive engagement with alternative views is a vital academic and life skill. Thank you to those of you who wrote back with your views on this. There was a lot of feedback, with the majority of you agreeing that this was an important issue for us to be focusing on at UCL. Our initial event as part of this activity will be on 28 June at the Bloomsbury Theatre and I hope as many of you as possible are able to engage with this work and register to attend, either in person or online.

University Management Committee discussions

UMC, the university’s senior management team, meets weekly to focus on key decisions, planning and issues and I share the top decisions and discussions coming out of those meetings in my emails to you. Recent meetings have covered:

  • Following discussions with Academic Board, UMC approved UCL’s future participation in the Athena Swan Charter mark.
  • In the context of finalising budgets for the next four years, as set out in our financial strategy, UMC reviewed some of the assumptions that will underpin these budgets ahead of a more detailed discussion planned for mid-June.


Dr Michael Spence
UCL President & Provost