When the academic new year begins in a month or so, universities will not only face the challenge of how they are going to conduct classes and tutorials while the coronavirus pandemic still rages. They will also be confronted by the very unwelcome prospect of being dragged into the arena of international politics.
I mentioned last month how China's education ministry had issued an advisory warning its young people about studying in Australian universities – purportedly over issues of racism and the inability to combat the coronavirus effectively, but generally assumed to be a rebuke for Prime Minister Scott Morrison's acquiescence in US President Donald Trump's attempts to pin all the blame for the virus on China.
Now ministers in the UK are said to be bracing themselves for a drastic reduction in the number of Chinese students at British universities, after Beijing-aligned media warned that "public and painful" retaliation was coming over the Conservative government's decision to ban Huawei from its 5G networks. Given that there are currently 120,000 Chinese students at British universities, this is no idle threat to the country's tertiary education sector.
In the US the number of Chinese students is even higher, at 370,000. They were alarmed when the Trump administration announced at the beginning of the month that if their colleges shifted to online-only classes when term begins, foreign students could not remain in America but would be expelled, and have to return home to take them.
The decision was later reversed, but many Chinese students already felt increasingly unwelcome in the US, partly due to Mr Trump's anti-Beijing rhetoric and partly due to his actions, such as another proposal to revoke the visas of students with direct ties to universities affiliated to the People's Liberation Army or China's intelligence agencies.
There are financial implications to this. Universities in all three countries – the US, Australia and the UK – depend on these students for income, the latter two heavily so. In 2017 Chinese constituted 11 per cent of Australia's total student population, and the University of Sydney relied on Chinese students for 20 per cent of its income. In the UK, nine universities – including Imperial College and University College, London – receive a similar or higher percentage of their tuition income from Chinese students.
But there is a wider point that is, to me, far more important. And that is the potential blow to the whole notion of students travelling internationally for under- and post-graduate education. These cohorts – from whatever country – are the ideal age and are in the optimal circumstances to immerse themselves in and learn about other cultures.
For few get to travel abroad except for short holidays as children. I was very lucky to spend significant periods of time growing up in Saudi Arabia and Papua New Guinea, experiences that gave me a lifelong appreciation for very different customs, religions, values and ideas of social order. But then my parents were expats; mine were encounters available to only a few.
True, some people do choose to work abroad as adults. But leaving “home” semi-permanently, which means removing oneself from family and friends, is a course of action almost alien to many, certainly in America and Europe, unless they are forced to do so by lack of opportunity in their own countries. And there is an unfortunate tendency among some expats – sad to say, Brits are often guilty of this – to stick together and not find out any more than strictly necessary about their host countries.
Students, however, are actively deciding to spend key formative years miles, and often thousands of miles, away from their own countries. They will live, eat and learn next to people who may look, sound and dress very differently from them.
While it is to be hoped that our common humanity will swiftly become obvious, so should the various ways in which we express that: our manners and mores, our attitudes to older generations, to the state, to society and how we fit into it, to religion and liberty, and to the individual and the collective.
The experiences can be transformative. It may not mean that, for example, the student from Myanmar will know exactly what it is to walk in an Englishman’s shoes; but he will have a much keener idea of it – including observing that, oddly, people in England keep those shoes on in their homes. We surely need more of this, for one of the ways we will find an answer to justified critiques of globalisation is to know more about each other, not less.
Neither does it need to involve any loss of identity or roots, becoming what the UK political thinker David Goodhart calls “people from anywhere”. Those who have been educated abroad still know the “somewhere” that they are from. I have many Malaysian friends, for instance, who studied and then worked in the UK. One by one, nearly all have returned.
This should be no surprise. Across the Muslim world, an education at Al Azhar University in Cairo has been prized for centuries. Students do not emigrate permanently to Egypt, though; they go back, to Indonesia, to Pakistan, to Europe and the Americas, and so on, enlightened by their studies and with their eyes opened to a different culture.
Mention of Egypt makes me bring up the point that “international students” should not refer solely to non-westerners entering western institutions. Just as people from all parts flock to the highly regarded but more recently established universities of the Arabian Gulf, we should be encouraging Europeans and Americans to study in China, in South Asia, Africa and the Global South.
Their universities are rising up the international rankings. Let anyone who dares suggest they are not good enough encounter the sharp minds I have witnessed at the University of Malaya or read the world-class research produced by higher education institutions in Singapore.
This should be a realm kept free from the rivalries of international politics. For any “idea of a university”, many of which have been posited over the years, surely must be inclusive, generous and collaborative – everything that wars over university students are not.
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum