Statistically meaningless

July 1, 2010

Ian Taylor is correct to say that the tendency to throw around large, uncontextualised numbers as statistical evidence of China's size - and by implication, "threat" - to "us" in the West poses a worrying barrier to genuine educational exchange between the Chinese and British academies ("Model doesn't stand up", Letters, 24 June). However, in the same issue, THE treats us to more meaningless statistics on the Chinese government's targets for international-student recruitment ("Beijing's welcome mat", News).

The bulk of the expected 80,000 international students in China this year are on short-term language programmes. Furthermore, the Confucius Institute, whose numerous branches worldwide are charged with promoting study in China, routinely fail to fill the scholarship quotas for full-time undergraduate and postgraduate study on mainstream programmes provided by the Ministry of Education. In practice, anyone who expresses an interest in one is basically guaranteed a place - what a way to "foster the quality and quantity of foreign students".

A cursory glance at the Confucius Institute's televised celebration of Chinese language learning in December 2009 reveals what this is all about: international students in traditional dress showing an impressive mastery of gongfu, calligraphy, opera and traditional ethnic-minority music. This is on-message with the Chinese state's "foreigners love Chinese culture" discourse - the local rival to the "China threat" we hear about so often in the UK. It is hardly a meaningful promotion of intercultural dialogue informed by academic research.

Does it matter? Several UK institutions (including the University of Sheffield, where I did my BA in Chinese studies) host the Institute. I would argue that there is a case for a little less awestruck number-crunching and a little more analysis of what the growing Chinese academy really means for higher education in the UK.

Richard Buckley, Master's student in applied linguistics and teaching Chinese as a foreign language, year 1 Beijing Language and Culture University, China.

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