China in their hands

Howard Davies on the People’s Republic’s gamble on Western education

May 10, 2012

Chinese students are big business. A recent report from the Institute of International Education, an American body, estimates that around 2.4 million of them have earned degrees overseas since the country began to open up in 1978, and there is no sign of the flow slowing down. Indeed, the number of Chinese people entering US undergraduate programmes is up 43 per cent on a year ago. In Canada, university education is the biggest single export to China, even more valuable to the economy than commodity purchases.

We do not know precisely how many mainland Chinese students are in the UK. But if there were 80,000, a reasonable estimate, and they spend, say, an average of £20,000 a year on fees and living expenses, that is an invisible export of £1.6 billion.

British exports of goods to China last year were worth around £7 billion.

These are big numbers, and protagonists always add that the longer-term consequences will be even more significant than the pounds and pence suggest. Those who study here will return home imbued with a sense of British values of tolerance and liberty. In the future, as they reach leadership positions in government or business, they will look kindly on us. They will be more likely to eat Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade than peanut butter and will dress in Burberry raincoats rather than vulgar Australian Driza-Bone apparel.

All this may turn out to be true, but it is neither a central part of the UK higher education mission nor certain. A study for the UK Council for International Education reports that only 15 per cent of Chinese students here say they have British friends, a far lower percentage than for English-speaking or European students, except the Greeks, who are also inclined to keep themselves to themselves. (Maybe the Greeks should ditch the euro in favour of the Renminbi.)

So how should we assess the significance of this remarkable influx? There are few precedents to which one can look for guidance. No other country with a “closed” political system has taken the risk of sending hundreds of thousands of its brightest young people to be educated overseas in countries with strong attachments to democracy and the values of the open society. (Some may think this a romantic notion of the US these days, but I am thinking of its great universities, not the Republican Party.) Yet the Chinese leadership seems persuaded that their students will return with a deeper understanding of thermodynamics or the capital asset pricing model, not a yearning to participate in the political process. That shows a remarkable degree of self-confidence, one that so far does not seem to have been misplaced. There are now some brave and influential dissidents in China, of course, but I am not aware of any concerted activity on overseas campuses directed at the regime back home.

On the other hand, my experience suggests that the caricature of Chinese students focused solely on their grades and unwilling to mix socially or to speak in class is overdone. At a beginning-of-term drinks party at the London School of Economics a few years ago, I inflicted myself on three Chinese girls talking to each other on the fringes of the group - exercising a kind of conversational droit de seigneur I felt came with my position.

“You shouldn’t be talking to each other,” I tiresomely observed.

Ah, they said, but we are from three different countries: one was from Shanghai, another from Hong Kong and the third from Taipei. So I quickly changed tack and said that meant they should be even more reluctant to mix with each other.

No, no, they corrected me. “We must stick together. I will need friends in Beijing in the future,” said the Hong Kong girl. “I need a friend who speaks Cantonese, or I can’t eat in Soho,” said the girl from Beijing. “And I pay,” smiled the Taiwanese.

This was not the only example of Chinese students from Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore - the last three groups already very familiar with the way English education works - acting as a kind of bridge into other nationalities. (Although this may be less useful in the US, where the numbers from those countries are far smaller.)

At the LSE, the Chinese Society, which began as a somewhat defensive grouping, came to behave like any other national group, mounting cultural shows and debates on policy. During my last two years, the president was called Howard, not a common name in China. I never quite worked out whether this was a tribute or an oblique attack. When I left, the society gave me a Mao suit. That was puzzling, too, but well meant I’m sure.

More recently, in my central banking class at Sciences Po, a Chinese student produced a very nuanced view of the People’s Bank of China’s exchange rate policy that their peers, in particular Americans brought up on a diet of Congressional criticism of Chinese exchange rate “manipulation”, clearly found most enlightening.

So there are some promising signs of greater integration, but the Chinese remain a little different. Last year I met one alumna, whom I had known as a student, in Beijing. She wanted my advice. Her brand new son was called En-Tse: “En” as in Zhou Enlai, and “Tse” as in - well, you know who. (It is fair to say she is not a budding dissident.) But what should his English name be?

My recommendation was Ernest. She could see the phonetic link but was doubtful, as it was a name she didn’t know, until I pointed out that it was my grandfather’s name. That swung it. If he makes a name for himself in the West one day, everyone will think it is down to Oscar Wilde. But Times Higher Education readers will know better.

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