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European universities’ collaboration with China: Beyond a fear-driven approach

29 March 2024

Paul Pauli, President, Julius-Maximilians-University of Würzburg
Doris Fischer, Vice-President for Internationalisation and Alumni and Chair of China Business and Economics,  Julius-Maximilians-University of Würzburg

In 2019, the European Union first named China a systemic rival. Currently, China is regularly named as a partner, as a competitor, and as a rival. This is an attempt to describe the complex relationship with a country whose global influence has grown substantially over the past twenty-five years. More recently, due to the Russian war on Ukraine and other geopolitical crises, the European Union and some European national governments have started to reassess their science and education cooperation policies with international partners.

In late February 2024, a large group of representatives from Coimbra Group Universities and other higher education institutions met in Würzburg, Germany, to discuss perspectives for the collaboration of European universities with China. The conference was organized jointly by the China Competence Center of the University of Würzburg and the Global Partnerships Working Group of the Coimbra Group.

During the two days of topical presentations, exchange on best practices and interactive work in small groups, the discussions among academics and staff from leading European universities showcased the high degree of uncertainty in this area, but also the desire for continued collaboration with Chinese partners. Intense conversations in the fields of ‘Education/Study’, ‘Science’ and ‘Science Policy’ helped identify the participants’ wants and concerns.

A major concern expressed throughout the conference is the lack of knowledge about China among scientists and research-supporting staff. Also, while acknowledging the need for regulation of certain forms of collaboration, the participants shared their worries about the possible increase of political interference and administrative burden regarding collaboration with China, both at teaching and research level. The strong emphasis put on the risks of collaboration in the political discourse was perceived as reflecting a lack of awareness from policymakers about the risks of not collaborating. Participants were concerned about a possible discrimination against Chinese students and researchers. More generally they dreaded a “weaponization of knowledge”.

Reflecting on possible ways to address these concerns, participants expressed strong interest in seeing more scholarly research on, in, and with, China. While such research is of general interest, it also provides possibilities for non-China experts to learn about China’s system of education, research, and innovation. The need for more high-quality information was further echoed in the suggestion to establish support services and infrastructures for scholars and institutions to assess the risks and specific challenges of collaborating with China. In a similar vein, participants wished to see more opportunities for exchange among institutions and scholars on experiences and best practices. A long-term vision that outlines the European objectives and values would help higher education institutions build specific in-house China competence. To reinforce trust policymakers, scientists and industrial actors need to collaborate on designing science cooperation policy in this area. Importantly, Chinese narratives should not be ignored when designing science cooperation policies for China.

Concrete lines for action were also brought up by the participants, that will be presented to the Coimbra Group Executive Board in the coming months. These include the suggestion to continue facilitating within the Coimbra Group exchanges on the collaboration with China, for example by establishing a new Working Group on this topic or a subgroup within the Global Partnerships WG. This would allow the Coimbra Group to consolidate European universities’ perspectives on, and demands for, collaboration with China in view to influence future EU policymaking in Brussels. This would also help Coimbra Group members to voice their views vis-à-vis their national governments.