The rise of Chinese students at universities highlights issues of free speech |

By Lindsay Wong

With the coronavirus in high gear, some of the unseen casualties include Chinese students enrolled in universities across the US and Australia – they’re currently barred from either leaving China or returning to their respective schools overseas. If thousands of students are forced to forgo this semester due to the travel ban, universities in Australia and the US stand to lose billions of dollars.

For students in the UK, however, the new semester begins much later in September so they’re less affected by this ban.

Foreign enrolment at tertiary education institutions is one of Britain’s most important sources of income, and the number of Chinese students in British universities has risen remarkably over the past few years, with numbers currently at more than 120,000 Chinese students in the 2018/19 academic year.

Compared to other international students in the UK, censorship and free speech are major issues on campus due to its large student numbers.

Increasing Number of Chinese Students

China has sent more students to the UK than any other country, with the US and Australia following behind. In the last 5 years, the number of Chinese students at British universities has risen by an astonishing 34%. Last year alone, the number of Chinese students rose by 13%. In 2014/15, there were approximately 89,540 Chinese students in comparison to around 120,385 students now. One in every three non-EU students is from China. 

Britain is on its way to meeting its goal of obtaining 600,000 international students by 2030. The country has benefited greatly from foreign enrolment at universities because international students pay fees that are two to three times higher than domestic students. 

Meanwhile, less Chinese students are choosing the US as a study destination. The recent political tensions between the US and China led to stricter immigration policies, making it harder for Chinese students to obtain visas. This has resulted in a 10% drop in the number of enrolments in the last two academic years.  

According to a BBC interview, Chinese students choose to study in Britain because of popular culture and what they have seen on TV and films. Furthermore, British universities boast prestige as some of the world’s oldest and highly-ranked universities.

Some students chose to study in the UK because of The Beatles’ influence

Censorship and Free Speech

Issues of censorship and free speech have come to the fore on British campuses due to the outbreak of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in the second half of last year. The opinions and values of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students have clashed on campus, with Hong Kong students feeling like they had been discriminated against by the larger Chinese groups of students.

The UK is also perceived as being overly reliant on Chinese students’ tuition fees. As such, universities are coming under direct pressure to limit and censor discussions on controversial topics like the pro-democracy protests.

Instead of standing up for freedom of speech, universities have their hands tied when it comes to keeping quiet about such topics because of their large Chinese student population. A similar situation also persists in Australian and New Zealand universities, as well as in the USA.

Claims on watchful eyes

When arriving in a Western country, Chinese students will inevitably be exposed to a multitude of ideas and values from a multicultural community at university. As such, there have been claims that the Chinese government keeps an eye on their overseas students and professors, with the Chinese embassy having close links to student organisations. This in turn severely restricts the freedom of expression of Chinese students no matter where they study, despite the fact that the countries they are studying in allow and even encourage freedom of speech.

Nevertheless, Yinbo Yu, the international student’s officer for Britain’s National Union of Students, has stated that Chinese students are increasingly making efforts to get involved with their university’s student union, which would give them a voice.

So what’s next? That’s anyone’s guess – and depends largely on who you ask, be it a school, a student, or a government.