News blog: what it is like to study in a Chinese university

Having attended classes in Shanghai for a year, David Matthews returns a little more sceptical about education in the country

September 9, 2015
Student reads before National Entrance Examination for Postgraduate (NEEP)

If any particularly observant readers noticed that my byline disappeared from Times Higher Education around this time a year ago, I can now reveal why. I spent this past year in Shanghai Jiao Tong University learning Mandarin Chinese, which, apart from helping me learn my 的 from my 地 and my 得, put me back in the very place that I’ve been reporting on for these past few years: university.

Specifically, the year gave me a first-hand peek into Chinese education, often an object of envy and fascination in the West. Every year Chinese universities seem to ascend up the world rankings, while such is the perceived excellence of schooling there that the BBC recently sent a team to film Chinese teachers trying to turn around a Hampshire comprehensive through China-style 7 am starts, copious note-taking and tracksuits for pupils.

But when I mentioned this Western admiration for China’s education system to anyone who had actually been through it, the response was usually one of bafflement. No one that I spoke to remembered their schooling with much fondness; instead, they recalled a tedious diet of rote learning and a heavily propagandised history curriculum.

Chinese friends were also deeply cynical about their university experiences. One described Chinese undergraduates as like “animals released from the zoo” – having passed the ultra-high stakes gao kao exam, students simply coast through university, their intrinsic interest in learning crushed by the extreme pressure of school. This same friend also knew a contemporary who, having failed the gao kao, had bribed her way into a middle-ranking institution for the equivalent of £2,000.

Another, studying at a prestigious university in Shanghai, had to sit what were called “open book exams” – in other words, students were allowed to take their books into the exam hall, and the test was simply a long exercise in copying them out.  

I experienced these rather suspect academic standards up close. In preparation for a multiple choice listening exam, our class was told that if in doubt, choose “C”. And, lo and behold, “C” turned out to be the right answer a suspiciously high number of times.

Having written about international students being treated as “cash cows” in the UK, I couldn’t help but feel that I was experiencing the story first hand. Students learning Chinese were barred from the library on account of there being too many of us. Tuition fees were still low (at about £2,000 a year) but with class sizes of more than 20, it was hard to know exactly where all this money was going.

Our teachers varied hugely in quality: some were excellent, possessing seemingly inexhaustible reserves of friendly patience when faced with our incomprehension. But another found it so difficult to answer our questions that she offered a tearful apology to the whole class. Either way, both belied the stereotype: none of our teachers demanded excessive rote learning, and usually welcomed our questions.

While I was abroad, I interviewed Yong Zhao, a Chinese-born professor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education, who has been arguing for years that the West should stop idolising the Chinese education system. The West oscillates between periods of Sinophilia and Sinophobia, Zhao argues in his book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World (2014).

He believes that the past decade has been one of excessive Sinophilia, particular in regard to education, and we should look more rationally at what does and doesn’t work in China’s system. Having experienced it for myself, his conclusions seem apt.   

In tomorrow's Times Higher Education, David Matthews reports from Hong Kong on academic freedom. It will appear online in the Features section.

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Reader's comments (3)

david, glad that you could get first hand experience on the chinese university system. in fact, you didn't have to. like anything in life said just about anything, there is a huge shade of grey. there are excellent and worst universities in china and india, like there are excellent and worst universities in the uk and elsewhere (of course the median quality is higher in certain places). the tragedy is that many of the hard-earned money of students from our country is spent in paying the exorbitant tuition fees in third-grade universities in places like the uk and australia. yes, you said it right, most of our students, who take huge loans, sell their farmland, parent's property, are indeed cash cows for the universities in the uk and australia. but we can hardly blame the universities in the uk and australia. we are the one who should take the blame. if we want this to stop, we have to bring the quality of our own universities at par with the best. btw, on record, i want to state that the university ranking brought about by most organizations, including times higher education, is full of crap. it does not take into account the parameters that are beyond anyone to think, for example, social justice, bringing students of downtrodden community at par with the privileged ones etc. etc. therefore, the barometer of success for our universities should not and must not be an inclusion in the top 100 or top 10 times higher education ranking but to enhance knowledge in our society and bring social justice. thank you. binay panda
Agreed. Lot of rote learning and memorization. Unengaged classes with disengaged students.
Nice article. Plz give information on Chinese Classes in Pune.