Scottish 'yes' may be 'no' for Chinese

Updated: 2014-09-05 07:28

By Deng Yajun(China Daily Europe)

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Students view appeal of scotland if vote leads to independence

Founded in 1451, the University of Glasgow's list of graduates includes Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, his magnum opus published in 1776 at the dawn of the British industrial revolution, which is still one of the most important books ever written on economics.

Iconic Scottish engineer James Watt first became interested in the technology behind steam engines while working at the university in the mid-1700s.

 Scottish 'yes' may be 'no' for Chinese

Chinese students on the campus of the University of Glasgow. It has been estimated that at Glasgow University alone, there are about 2,000 Chinese students. Provided to China Daily

Across the rest of Scotland, too, in Edinburgh, and further up its east coast in St Andrews, Dundee and Aberdeen, the country's most famous "ancient" universities continue to sell themselves around the world, especially in China, based on similar long pedigrees of quality learning.

But on Sept 18 the country decides on whether to end 300 years of union with the rest of Britain, and some have already been suggesting that its historic status as an international educational Mecca might be badly affected in the event of a "yes" vote for independence from the rest of Britain.

Scottish Education Secretary Mike Russell, from the pro-independence Scottish National Party, argues strongly that the region has more world-class universities per head of population than any other country.

"It is precisely because of that global excellence that an independent Scotland will continue to attract valuable investment, research funding and students from around the globe," he says.

At Glasgow University alone, there are an estimated 2,000 Chinese students among roughly 7,800 across the country as a whole, making up the most of any non-EU community.

However, two unscientific student surveys carried out independently by this reporter this year - one of 132 Chinese students already here in April, and a second in August, of 100 recently arrived students, many studying English in preparation for their degrees starting in September - suggest a scenario very different to Russell's.

In both cases, in response to the question, "If Scotland had left the UK and become a separate country, would it have affected your decision to study here?" Forty-five percent in the first survey, and 51 percent in the second, answered, "Yes, we would have chosen elsewhere."

Unlike Scottish students and those from the rest of the EU except, ironically, England, international students pay fees of around 10,000 pounds ($16,568) per year to attend university in the country.

More than 100,000 Chinese students currently study in the UK -more than any other country outside the United States.

Translate those potentially "lost" Chinese students into hard cash, and the survey results make uncomfortable reading for university admissions departments across the country.

They might, too, for Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, who has emphasized deepening Scotland's education links with China and increasing collaboration in research and development between the countries. Those were two of his four economic priorities within his government's Five-Year Strategy for Engagement between Scotland and China policy paper, published in December 2012.

Scottish 'yes' may be 'no' for Chinese

As an independent Scotland, Salmond highlights the national target of increasing the number of Chinese mainland and Hong Kong students studying in Scotland from the UK's current 8.5 percent share in 2010/11 to 10 percent.

Scotland's university sector calculates its annual export-related activities were worth 1.3 billion pounds in 2011/12, 60 percent of which came from outside of the UK, and the Scottish government's goal is to grow that to over 2 billion pounds by 2017.

The economic benefit of attracting international students - there were an estimated 28,300 non-EU domicile students studying in Scottish higher education last year, according to the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) - is now worth 337 million pounds in fees, and 441 million pounds in off-campus income, according to Scottish government figure. There are an estimated 7,800 Chinese students currently studying in Scotland, and 18,600 EU students, says the HESA.

The effect on university numbers of an independent Scotland were clearly on the minds of those involved in the Connected Scotland partnership a new government-led "joint working" approach, launched on June 19, involving the country's top universities and other bodies, including Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen universities, the influential Scottish Universities Life Science Alliance, and the British Council Scotland.

Its three-year aim, it says, is to "amplify a message in target markets about the quality and scope of the sector's offering".

Member organizations plan to share their resources and networks to "support the goal of increasing the sector's export revenue by more than 50 per cent in six years".

Both the student surveys asked two core questions: first, the question about coming to an independent Scotland to study, and second, "Would Scotland leaving the UK make any difference to how you rate a degree from Scotland?"

The first survey also asked three more questions: "Before you came here to study, what did you know about Scotland?" and the same question about England, and, "Away from course, are you enjoying your life in Scotland?

Students in the first survey had been in Scotland for nearly a year, and those queried in the second survey had just arrived.

In April, 132 Chinese students were among the 200 foreign students who took the survey. Of the Chinese students, 45 percent said they would have been less likely to come to Scotland if it had become independent; 44 percent said Scottish independence would have made no difference to their choice; and 11 percent said they would have been more likely to come.

On the effect on a Scottish degree's value, 51 percent answered the value would remain the same; 37 percent thought the value would decrease; and 12 percent said the value would increase. Just 6 percent of students said they did not like life in the Scotland, against a resounding 73 percent who did.

In the second poll, conducted in early August, 100 Chinese students were again asked the first two core questions.

Five months on from the first survey, half the new respondents (exactly 50 percent) said that if Scotland had been an independent country, they would have been less likely to come; 43 percent said it would have made no difference; and 7 percent said they would have been more likely to come

One percentage point fewer students (49 percent) said the value of the Scottish degree would remain the same if Scotland becomes independent.

However, a significant 39 percent said they thought the value of the Scottish degree would decrease, and 12 percent said the value would increase.

In both my surveys, students were also asked to comment on their reasoning.

For those who said their decision to come to Scotland would have been affected by independence, there was widespread consensus: The world's most famous brands for education are still the United Kingdom and United States.

Chinese students said they knew very little about Scotland and its educational reputation, specifically, and had treated their decision based on its association with England or the UK as a whole.

Li Xiaoyu, a postgraduate at Glasgow University, says: "England is the main representative of the UK".

Wang Qin from Edinburgh University says: "A UK degree has always been widely recognized, but the Scottish degree is not yet."

More bluntly, Li Zhi from Edinburgh says: "Scotland is not an outstanding academic country for cutting-edge research."

In the latest Times Higher Education Rankings, published in October, the number of Scottish universities included in a list of the world's top higher education institutions rose from four to five, with Edinburgh the highest-placed Scottish institution, despite dropping seven places to 39th.

Glasgow rose 22 places to share 117th position with St Andrews, which slipped back nine places. Aberdeen dropped 12 places to 188 but Dundee re-entered the top 200 at 196th.

Scotland did have more institutions in the top 200 per head of population than any other country, as Russell says. The Republic of Ireland has just two top 200 institutions, and neither made the top 100.

The United States dominated the table with 77 of the top 200 places.

The UK remains Europe's strongest representative with 31 universities including the Scottish five in the top 200.

England has three in the top 10, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London, and others in the top 100.

Tian Cheng, a student at Glasgow University, says she thought that, "the fame and reputation of English education is higher".

Liu Hui, also from Glasgow, suggests that the status of Scotland would become "the same as the south of Ireland", which broke away from the United Kingdom in 1921.

His conclusion was that Scotland is "less popular than the UK, and when thinking of going abroad to study, it's either the US or UK, but not Scotland".

Other respondents expressed concern, too, over how stable an independent Scotland might be.

From the second survey's comments, Wang Jia from Edinburgh, says: "The UK is comparatively developed and well organized, but if Scotland became independent, it would face many complicated issues, such as its currency, its foreign representation and its defense."

Du Qingmei, another Edinburgh student, goes as far as suggesting that should the "yes" vote prevail on Sept 18, "as it would be a new country, small and unstable, I would want to go to England".

The Adam Smith "effect" means many Chinese students in Scotland study economics, and those involved were acutely aware of the problems that new countries face on issues such as budget deficits, taxation and maintain a high level of public spending.

Liu Kai from Strathclyde University in Glasgow notes: "If Scotland became independent, public welfare would go down."

Wang Yanyan, also from Glasgow, adds: "After independence, spending on education might be reduced."

Li Shafei, from Glasgow, says: "There will be a shortage in government funding, so tuitions fee will go up, and the quality of education will go down."

As with any product, the quality of degrees remains paramount for many students. For those Chinese surveyed, there were fears that that value would be diluted as a result of independence.

"Less (government) money cannot attract the best professors," Wang Yihan from Glasgow says.

Some saw the English brand still stronger than the Scottish, with respondents in the first survey listing Queen Elizabeth, Buckingham Palace, David Beckham, Manchester United, Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austin, fashion, music, the Beatles, and afternoon tea as what appeals the most.

"We think of it [England] as a very cool place to visit," one says.

"Scotland just does not have the same level of reputation," Li Yi adds.

"Without England, the best known things in Scotland would be kilts and bagpipes."

However, not all the students polled agreed.

Some pointed to the beauty of Scottish scenery, and how good it was to live and study in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Some 73 percent of the first survey's respondents say studying in Scotland has proved to be a very good experience and that they have enjoyed life there.

Glasgow has a reputation for being a friendly city with a vibrant nightlife for students.

The capital, Edinburgh, is also popular. As Qingyi Yang puts it: "I love this place."

A few students admitted that they would have been more likely to come to Scotland if it were independent, but that was mainly driven by the perception that it might be easier to get work visas afterwards, and that a new Scottish government would have more lenient immigration rules.

Su Lili, from Glasgow Caledonian University, says: "Given its energy resources, it (Scotland) would become a richer and more developed country."

Liu Yuchuan, from Glasgow, comments: "The fame of its universities won't be affected at all by political problems."

Reacting to the survey's suggestion that independence might mean a halving in international student numbers, Ulrike Peter, senior policy officer for Universities Scotland, the representative body of Scotland's 19 higher education institutions, and a lead member of Connected Scotland, says: "Scottish universities will try their best to either maintain or attract students from China, with the best they can offer.

"Of course it would be devastating if that was the case."

Some of the names of the students quoted in this article have been changed in order to protect their confidentiality.

For China Daily

 Scottish 'yes' may be 'no' for Chinese

Enjoying life at Glasgow Caledonian University: Chinese students say the west coast Scottish city has a reputation for being friendly, with a vibrant nightlife. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily European Weekly 09/05/2014 page24)