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China is a strategically significant international market for most major UK Universities and the University of Manchester is no exception. As host to one of Europe’s largest populations of overseas Chinese students, it is not only a source of significant economic benefit to the city and region but also a vital hub for cultural exchange that helps to shape how the next generation of Chinese leaders experience the UK. In this interview, President of the University of Manchester, Dame Nancy Rothwell, talks about the intricacies of this relationship.


What role do you see the University of Manchester playing in bilateral relations between China and the UK?

It’s important that the UK can work with China on the shared challenges facing humanity. To achieve this we need the people of China and the UK to understand each other better. Students that come to universities like Manchester are a vital part of building this relationship. Chinese students that study in the UK return to China and create an important bridge between the two countries. This is an important benefit as they are likely to be the leaders of the future.

The partnerships we have developed with Chinese universities aim to ensure collaboration in areas that are complex and global in nature and extend across national borders, for example in sustainability and climate change. Without the opportunity to pool knowledge, innovate and create solutions to scientific problems that are tried and tested in different environments, we will both be slower to solve these problems.


What contribution do Chinese students make to the university and region?

There is a strong history of links between China and the city region, as evidenced by the long-standing and vibrant Chinese community here in Manchester. The current wave of students adds huge value to the cultural life of the university via their interaction in study groups with other students. The presence of overseas students, including Chinese students also makes an important contribution to research at the university and to our global standing. Their presence helps us to retain the best academic talent, which is one of the main reasons Chinese students are attracted to study in the UK in the first place. The world-class research we pursue is also vital to delivering an outstanding experience for Chinese students, as it directly informs our curriculum and what they learn when they are studying here in Manchester. So, there is a virtuous circle which is often forgotten.

Chinese students also bring significant economic and social benefit to the city through the money they spend while living here. Through our work with alumni we have also seen many examples of investment in the city region by former students as they progress in their careers.


How do shifts in the bilateral relationship affect the university’s links
with China?

We have seen a shift in the way we work with China. This is partly because of the difficulty in travelling to China at the moment. But the need to maintain links with Chinese universities is clear. There are research areas where China’s significant investment has seen it become a world leader, so it’s in the UK’s interest to increase collaboration. With China continuing to invest in R&D this trend will continue. If the UK wants to maintain its position as a world leader in research and development it needs to work with the best and take an active approach to collaboration. In this way academic collaboration should transcend political differences.


Schools in the UK offer more Chinese courses than ever before, so why don’t more students study Chinese at university? What can institutions such as the University of Manchester do to encourage greater uptake of Chinese?

Looking at the relationship between the UK and China there’s a real need to deepen understanding of China on the UK side and to invest in knowledge of the country. That’s one of the main aims of the Manchester China Institute, which was launched in 2018 following a donation from Dr Lee Kai Hung, a prominent Hong Kong philanthropist. The Centre works across disciplines at the University, including in our School of Arts, Languages and Cultures where we have Chinese language programmes designed to foster a better understanding of China. Part of this is encouraging students to take up language courses but it’s also about supporting the study of China in other parts of the curriculum.

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