There are currently 30 branches of the Confucius Institute operating across the UK. Although controversies have existed for many years, they have continued to teach Britons Chinese language, culture and business etiquette. These schools are effectively joint ventures between a host university in Britain, a partner university in China, and the Chinese International Education Foundation (CIEF), a Beijing-based organisation.
Until recently, the Beijing-backed programme was viewed positively by the Conservative government. As education minister in 2014, Liz Truss praised the network of Confucius classrooms, saying they “will put in place a strong infrastructure for Mandarin” in the UK.
But Truss has since taken an increasingly hawkish stance on Beijing. Recent reports suggested that she was prepared to declare China an “acute threat” to the UK’s national security, placing it in the same category as Russia. As bilateral relations between China and the UK continue to deteriorate, the Confucius language learning and teaching project has been under heavy scrutiny.
Campaigners have questioned the funding and recruitment process of the Chinese language teaching initiative. They also highlighted the limit to free speech in these classrooms and called the UK’s approach to Mandarin teaching “outdated”.
Almost all UK government spending on Mandarin teaching at schools is channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes, a study conducted by China Research Group in June has shown. This amounts to at least £27m allocated from 2015 to 2024, according to estimates.
Those involved in the talks with the Taiwanese included Tory MP Alicia Kearns. Under the new proposal being seen by MPs, this funding could be redirected to alternative programmes such as those from Taiwan.
Britain’s foreign language capability has been a major topic in Westminster in recent years as the country looks for ways to implement the post-Brexit “global Britain” framework. It was revealed last month that only 14 FCDO officials are being trained to speak fluent Chinese each year. The lack of Mandarin proficiency raised concerns for British diplomacy and also put language teaching under the spotlight.
Such concerns are shared in the US, too, and Taiwan has stepped in. In December 2020, the Chinese-speaking island signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the US to expand language teaching. Taipei’s Overseas Community Affairs Council, also a government agency, has been setting up Mandarin learning centres in a number of US cities since last year, in apparent competition with Confucius Institutes.
But Andrew Methven, who began studying Chinese two decades ago and now runs a Mandarin-learning newsletter, Slow Chinese, said that outsourcing language teaching “is not a solution”. “There needs to be a much deeper change in how we understand China in our education system,” he said.
“For example, considering how China can be included more in the existing syllabus at GCSE level and below – such as China’s role in the second world war, as well as looking at earlier parts of Asian history. At A-level and beyond, language should be taught based on experiences of people who have actually learned it, and not outsourced to anywhere – China, Taiwan or anywhere else.”