Andrew Tettenborn

UCL is harming itself by pandering to China


We have suspected for some time that UK universities were supping with the devil when they relied on legions of foreign, especially Chinese, students to balance the books. Last week the mask slipped spectacularly at University College London. 

Some months ago a Chinese student complained of ‘horrible provocation’ when Michelle Shipworth, an associate professor dealing with human behaviours, asked a seminar class of whom about a quarter were Chinese, to criticise statistics suggesting that China had one of the world’s biggest modern slavery problems. The case escalated. She was leant on to lay off China in favour of, say, India so that Chinese students would not feel ‘singled out’. She refused, citing academic freedom. The result was all too predictable. Her course went to someone else, and she is now subject to a formal complaint of anti-Chinese bias (not unrelated, one suspects, to previous episodes when two Chinese students she had caught cheating red-handed were sent down).

UCL appears to be implying, by this incident, that it will channel the direction of academic enquiry to keep sales buoyant

The only thing that can be said in favour of UCL is that it was honest. Dr Shipworth’s departmental head, no doubt having consulted senior administrators, bluntly told her that he was transferring her class because her teaching had been provocative, and that owing to ‘perceived bias’ Chinese students ‘are not having a good experience at UCL, and that the reputation and future recruitment of our courses is being damaged.’ Since the story has come to light, UCL has put out the following statement:

We are proud to have a thriving and diverse student community, with the brightest minds from the UK and more than 150 other countries, choosing to study and research here. We also have a long tradition of safeguarding freedom of speech and are committed to upholding the rights of our staff and students to facilitate debate and exercise their academic freedom of enquiry. While it would not be appropriate to comment on individual cases, the issues raised in this article are clearly concerning and we are working to establish what has happened.

There’s no need to labour the obvious. This is terrible not only for academic freedom but for the idea of a university. UCL appears to be implying, by this incident, that it will channel the direction of academic enquiry to keep sales buoyant and the marketing managers happy. It is a racing certainty that, if they are not already doing so, other academics will now take the hint: the education students receive will be with one eye on avoiding offence to the high-paying foreign customer base. UK parents with university age children, you have been warned. 

It also, ironically, shows how UCL has slipped. Founded in 1826 to provide top-quality education to those let down by the ancient universities, as late as 2006 the institution still had some of its old radical pizzazz. That year, with some fanfare, it promoted an international jamboree to mark ‘a place in British intellectual history’ for John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century champion of academic and personal freedom whose aims were similar to UCL’s, on his bicentenary. Understandably his memory was one argument Dr Shipworth invoked on this occasion when pressing for her own intellectual freedom. The answer from her head of department, a senior professor? A telling email: ‘I would be pleased to continue this discussion in person… note that I am an economist and modeller and I have no idea who J.S. Mill is.’ How are the mighty fallen.

But the problems run deeper. For one thing, it’s all very well to opt for a quiet life by allowing a student body that pays the bills indirectly to call the shots over what is taught. But it won’t be long before other foreign student bodies – say Indian or West African – catch on to this exercise in academic appeasement. Will UCL in the next few years have to tailor its courses to avoiding offence to any group, something which will even more closely constrict research and academic enquiry?

Secondly, even on a cynical financial footing UCL could well be riding for a fall. Its business model, shared with a worrying number of other colleges, amounts to scooping in ever-increasing numbers of foreigners prepared to stump up serious money (up to £40,000) for a prestigious UK degree. This has worked up to now, but to a large extent only because UCL is historically high in the official league tables of UK universities that many students and government scholarship bodies rely on in choosing foreign institutions. Unfortunately, a reputation for providing an education that is designed not to offend, however good for next year’s recruitment figures, may in the long term lead to a precipitous drop. 

This should to worry UCL. The market it has chosen to enter may give large gains. But it is an unforgiving one, and there are plenty of competitors in Australia, Canada, and the US that will be delighted to poach business from schools whose standards seem to be slipping towards a simple pandering to student satisfaction. The worst of all worlds would be a UCL that in, say, ten years has lost not only the assured far eastern income stream that it assumed would keep it afloat but the prestige it needs to encourage good students in the future. 

It need not be that way. A bit of rigour can actually work wonders. For first-class students and also for the would-be employers, whose views increasingly matter, a university’s willingness to challenge students and fail those who do not measure up (or cheat) indicates a degree worth having. This is the kind of quality that UCL should be going for. If that involves standing up for teaching that offends the odd interest group, then so be it.