Universities and PRC-risk

A couple of days ago the prominent US economics blog Marginal Revolution highlighted a university in the United States which had taken out insurance against a significant drop in revenue from Chinese students.   The underlying article was here.  The policy had been taken out last year, but only now has the broker allowed the transaction to be publicised.

Here’s the gist

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has paid $424,000 to insure itself against a significant drop in tuition revenue from Chinese students.

In what is thought to be a world first, the colleges of business and engineering at the university signed a three-year contract with an insurance broker to pay the annual six-figure sum, which provides coverage of up to $60 million.


Jeff Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business, told Times Higher Education that the insurance would be “triggered” in the event of a 20 percent drop in revenue from Chinese students at the two colleges in a single year as a result of a “specific set of identifiable events.”

“These triggers could be things like a visa restriction, a pandemic, a trade war — something like that that was outside of our control,” he said.

Tuition revenue from Chinese students makes up about a fifth of the business college’s revenue.

Brown said that the insurance would cover the colleges’ losses if the decline was temporary and buy the university time to “make some adjustments to where we recruit” if it became a longer-term issue.

The article refers to the comments, mentioned here the other day, from a former head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Last month, Peter Varghese, chancellor of Australia’s University of Queensland, suggested that universities should put revenues from Chinese students into a trust fund to insulate themselves against a future drop in enrollments from East Asia.

A few thoughts came to mind reading the article:

  • on the one hand, the insurance seems quite cheap (less than 1 per cent of the amount insured).  Even if a year ago there weren’t debates –  as now in the US –  about possible government restrictions on China student visa numbers – the risk of something going wrong wouldn’t have seemed small (after all, even pandemics happen more than once in a hundred years, and wars have also been higher frequency than that).
  • and, on the other, you have to therefore suppose that the contract is very tightly drawn, and it might well be difficult for the university to get a claim paid out.

It would also be interesting to have seen their analysis on the merits of paying a premium to an outside insurer as opposed to self-insuring.  The university concerned  appears to have an endowment of US$3.5 billion and a drop in Chinese student numbers doesn’t look like it could pose an existential threat to the institution as a whole.

And the policy seems unlikely to provide cover in the event that, say, the university president or a group of his/her senior academics were at some point to make a strong stand against the actions and policies of the People’s Republic of China.  That is something in the hands of the university and therefore almost certainly uninsurable.  If anything, one could imagine the insurance policy constraining their perceived freedom of action/speech.

But it also got me thinking about the compromised position of New Zealand universities.  Perhaps none of them is dependent on the China market for quite 15 per cent of their total revenue, although there will be individual departments and perhaps even faculties that will be at least that dependent.   In a new post, on why people on the left have been reluctant to support Anne-Marie Brady, I noticed this line from Paul Buchanan

The first, prevalent amongst academics, is concern about losing funding or research opportunities for publicly siding with her. The concern is obvious and acute in departments and institutes that receive PRC funding directly

Do we really have components of our public universities receiving direct funding from the PRC (Confucius Institutes aside, which are peripheral to the universities themselves)?  If so, surely such funding should be given more prominence, given the nature of the regime (scarcely benevolent and welcoming of scrutiny and criticism).

But even just in respect of student enrolments, the PRC market is clearly of considerable importance to the universities (and slightly far-fetched claims of increased penetration of the international student market are used to support Victoria University Vice-Chancellor – and China Council member – Grant Guilford’s bid to change the name of his institution).   Our universities are keen on lots of foreign undergraduate students for various reasons.  High numbers apparently help them in some of the mechanical international ranking schemes.   But the key driver is almost certainly the money.  Overseas students –  especially from non English-speaking backgrounds –  are quite expensive to support, but they can be charged full fees.  By contrast, the government caps both domestic student fees themselves, and limit the amount of direct support to universities in respect of those students (while, with gay abandon, offering interest-free student loans and fee-free entry to students themselves).  In a hugely distorted “market”, successive governments have set up the incentives that drove the universities further into exposure to the political whims of the PRC authorities.  Universities, in turn, were aided and abetted by the immigration policy provisions, that bundled-up work rights and qualification for post-study visas and residence points with study at a New Zealand institution.   In most fields, in most institutions, our universities simply aren’t so good (highly ranked) they’d attract large numbers on their own merits at full fees (although being a low wage Anglo country, presumably our fees are lower than those in some other countries).

The corruption of the system is double-edged.  There is the political dimension –  we are never likely to see a clarion call from our Vice-Chancellors opposing the repressive nature of the PRC regime, including the repression of academic freedom – such as it was – in China.  It seems unlikely they’d even speak up for, say, Anne-Marie Brady here –  certainly none have.  Once upon a time one might have looked to university vice-chancellors as among the eminent figures guarding and championing our traditions (for all the talk about academics as “critic and conscience”, a huge part of what they do is pass down the accumulated knowledge and wisdom, so that we don’t start anew each generation).  But not these days.  There are deals to be done –  connections with the PRC itself, even degree-granting programmes there –  and enrolment numbers to keep up.  Vice-Chancellors seem more like hawkers, than guardians and champions of our values.

But the other side of the corruption of the system relates to the pressure to pass people.  Those of us outside universities don’t see much of this directly, although occasional reports seep out.    But there was a Twitter thread the other day from an Australian economist, who teaches at the University of Queensland

One hears similar stories from time to time here (not necessarily specific to PRC students), and one can only assume they aren’t uncommon, (and that New Zealand universities are no purer, or their academics more resistant to pressure, than their Australian counterparts).

It is a very sad way to run a university system – at least if society expects anything more of universities than being degree-factories.   Rather than “critic and conscience” it has the feel of something more like corrupted exemplars of how off course our society has gone.

And thus there seems almost no chance that our universities –  or the Australian ones – will heed Peter Varghese’s advice (will his own even do so?).  Governments would have to take the issue seriously first, and that seems unlikely.    Putting aside some of the short-term profits as protection against a “rainy day” –  if the thugs in Beijing took a dislike to you – would probably immediately expose the problems in the financial standing of the universities and of our tertiary education system as a whole.  Better just to go along, get along, get the Vice-Chancellor on one or other of the pro-PRC propaganda bodies, pass the students, keep the contracts (with Beijing or Wellington), and keep supporting succesive governments in doing everything possible to avoid upsetting Beijing, to sacrifice the values of our society on the pyre of deals and donations.

But I was left wondering whether our own Export Credit Office –  a small intervention I’m deeply sceptical of –  would offer our universities the sort of insurance the University of Illinois was taking out.    They tout themselves as offering these services

NZEC can assist exporters to mitigate the effects of a buyer cancelling a contract or defaulting on its payments, as a consequence of commercial or political events beyond an exporter’s control.

And would we be better off if they did, or would the insurer just be even more keen on keeping the insured (the universities) in line?

In her writings, Anne-Marie Brady quite often introduces lines from Lenin, which appear to help shed some light on how the PRC operates.  As one reflects on our universities –  in particular – I’m reminded of the line that the capitalists would sell the communists the rope with which they’d later be hanged.   Perhaps one expects little of our “capitalists” –  businesses can prosper under any political regime (see Google worming its way back into China) – but universities were supposed to be better than that.  Governments share the blame, of course, but leaders of universities are moral agents, and should have their own responsibilities beyond just the income statement.