Why Chinese PhD students are drawn to the UK

Ellie Bothwell blogs from the opening of the British Council’s UK-China Education Policy Week in Beijing

March 15, 2016
Chinese New Year celebrations in Liverpool, February 2016
Source: iStock
Chinese New Year celebrations in Liverpool, February 2016

What attracts Chinese students to the UK? It turns out, for some, that the answer is the BBC’s Sherlock and fish and chips.

These were two of the responses I received from Chinese PhD students during a reception at the British ambassador's residence in Beijing for this year’s Newton Fund PhD placement programme, a scholarship delivered jointly by the British Council and the China Scholarship Council that sponsors Chinese and UK PhD students to spend up to one year at universities in each other’s countries. 

But apart from being won over by our television shows and world-renowned cuisine, the students said that they were also drawn to the UK because of its world-class research and the fact that their professors already had academic ties to the country.

Liu Yanyan, a PhD student at Minzu University of China who has received a scholarship to study Chinese minority economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science from June, told me that she wanted to come to the UK because it has a “long history of research”. 

“In China, the study of economics is strongly linked to policy and politics. The UK has a more scientific attitude to economics,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lu Wenhui, who is currently at Jinan University and will join the University of East Anglia to study pathology and pathophysiology later this year, said that she picked the UK as her top destination because the two institutions have a “long-term collaboration”.

Zhang Youliang also cited the partnership between his Chinese institution – China Agricultural University – and Lancaster University as a reason for choosing to study hydraulic engineering there, adding that he hoped his UK experience would help him to secure a job after his studies. 

Jiang Shuzhen, who is studying at Guangdong University of Technology, said that he picked the University of Birmingham because it is one of the world’s leading institutions for mechanical engineering and it has equipment that he can’t find in China. He was also drawn to the UK because he wants a better “work-life balance” than scientists have in China.

“I want to learn how the UK carries out research,” he said. “In the UK, research output is high, but they know how to balance life and research.”

My discussions with the students brought to my mind an article that Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, wrote for Times Higher Education last year, stressing the importance for the UK of attracting Chinese students – and not just because they are “a proportion of market share”. 

He argued that our relationship with the People’s Republic is one that will “secure the future of our world”.

“We must care for our Chinese students in the way we care for all our students. They are our colleagues, co-creators of knowledge and our friends,” he wrote.

“By an accident of history and the deep desire of Chinese parents to make sometimes tremendous sacrifices for their children to have access to the best education and prospects that the world can offer, the UK has built a profound connection with arguably the largest and most influential nation on our planet,” he added.

This is true. Nevertheless, for some students, the desire to come to the UK will be about more than just higher education. One student’s answer was simple. “I like the British accent,” she said.


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