Uncle Sam no longer a favourite...

December 10, 2004

The US used to be a magnet for Chinese students but the fervour has cooled and others hope to profit from the backlash, says Stephen Phillips

The thought of Chinese students lining up to enter Western universities is enough to make higher education managers drool. But the number of Chinese students at US campuses has plummeted. Graduate student applications from China have dropped 45 per cent this academic year compared with last year, the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC reports. This is the sharpest decline of any nation. The US has experienced a 28 per cent slump in international applicants overall. Admissions of Chinese undergraduates were also down by 34 per cent, compared with an 18 per cent downturn in international enrolment generally.

Chinese students have found themselves at the sharp end of stringent post-9/11 student visa screening. Chinese along with Russians and Indians make up 80 per cent of the intensive security clearance checks invoked under the US Government's Visa Mantis programme, which flags up students studying subjects that are considered militarily sensitive.

US consulates have traditionally taken a cautious approach to Chinese students, based on the fact that many make asylum claims once they have completed their studies, says Vic Johnson of Nafsa, the International Association of Educators. But he adds that since 9/11 things have worsened because the security agenda "offers a convenient rationale" for refusing visas.

America remains the biggest magnet for international students. It plays host to nearly 600,000 - dwarfing Britain, which comes in at second place but has fewer than half its number and Australia and Canada, which have 130,000 and 106,000 respectively.

The spectacle of the most prestigious university system facing a backlash in the world's most populous student market has not been lost on other Western nations eyeing rich pickings in China.

While Chinese students are spurning America for more politically friendly climates, other nations are stepping up their sales pitches. US institutions still boast the most generous scholarships, but Australian and Canadian campuses have stressed cheaper fees and living costs, and British and New Zealand institutions have emphasised shorter courses as their selling points.

In contrast to the US, the Canadian province of Alberta last year fast-tracked visa approvals for students from China, India and Vietnam while in the UK the number of Chinese students rose 4.5 per cent in 2003-04 and numbers in Australia increased by 18 per cent.

Lisa Krieg, director of the Office of International Education at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says: "I often quote the declining US (Chinese student) numbers against the shooting-through-the-roof numbers in Australia."

Carnegie Mellon has the highest proportion of international students among US research institutions, with nearly half of its graduate student ranks hailing from overseas. "Our dip in new Chinese students was 37.5 per cent," Krieg says.

"The visa problems Chinese students face are significant. We've had students who've been stuck, unable to get visas for months - new and continuing students," she adds. "Every time they want to go home they're faced with the prospect of getting a new visa. Your heart goes out to them - they're in the middle of their lives in the US, it's so disruptive."

As a result, many put off returning home for the duration of their courses for fear of being denied re-entry, Krieg says.

Although visa staff have significantly speeded up processing times, Chinese demand for places at US campuses is still muted. "The word's out that America's a hard place to get a study visa for," says Johnson, "It's hard to counteract this."

The Council of Graduate Schools cites "diminished perceptions of US hospitality" for low demand. It concludes that "there is no reason to believe these factors will diminish in the short-run".

Krieg doubts the political will of the Bush Administration to take steps to boost America's image among Chinese and other international students, and halt declining enrolment.

But individual campuses are rallying round international students. The University of Texas has offered to reimburse international students' visa application fees.

But this very individualised campus-by-campus approach is hampering US institutions' efforts to promote themselves in China, Krieg says. Countries such as Australia run "concerted, well-organised and coordinated" national recruitment drives, though Australia's share of the Chinese market fell from 11 to 9 per cent last year, amid a general drop in its recruitment of overseas students Nevertheless, top-flight US institutions remain the most sought-after destinations for China's brightest students, Krieg says. Moreover, due to the visa bottleneck at home, US campuses are in the vanguard of Western universities launching ventures in China.

With the relaxation of restrictions on foreign degree-granting institutions, Temple, Johns Hopkins and Cornell are among the US universities that have cut deals to administer courses through Chinese campuses.

In a markedly different approach, Oklahoma City University last year set up shop in China, with its own stand-alone campus at the Oriental City of Universities near Beijing - paralleling Nottingham University's plans to found a campus near Shanghai.

A consortium of US Jesuit universities, led by Fordham, created the inaugural Sino-foreign MBA programme with the China Center for Economic Research, part of Beijing University, four years ago. It now has 80 part-time and nearly 50 full-time students.

Patricia Ramsey, management professor and faculty coordinator of the Beijing International MBA, says: "The fact that Fordham is a New York university and students earn an American degree" has provided cachet.

Last year, Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business formed the first partnership between an American business school and the Chinese Government, co-developing a Shanghai-based MBA programme with the Ministry of Finance for top officials after China's 2001 entry into the World Trade Organisation.

Buck Pei, the university's associate dean for Asia-Pacific Programmes, says he "hears nothing but wow" about the possibilities of Chinese higher education. But he says many believe China will be a hard market for Western Universities to crack.

"People underestimate the challenges," says Pei, a Taiwanese immigrant with Chinese parents. "China is huge - one can easily lose focus like a kid in a candy store. Without a strategic focus you'll come away empty-handed."

Arizona State is trying to reduce the risks of operating in the open market. Its MBA course is exclusively for senior managers at China's largest state-owned enterprises, which pay the fees. It has 145 students and has been heavily oversubscribed, Pei says. Arizona State's other Chinese venture is a contract to tailor an in-house MBA for phone company Motorola's Beijing employees.

Forging ties with local partners and exploiting their inside knowledge and contacts, is key to succeeding in China, says Pei, who is sceptical of Western institutions going it alone. He says many Westerners equate linguistic fluency in Mandarin with cultural fluency.

"People think you can easily score in China, but that's not the case," he adds.

Students hardly beat down the door when the University of Michigan launched a distance-learning masters degree in manufacturing engineering with Shanghai's Jiao Tang University in 2002. Just three students signed up initially.

Now there are 13 - still shy of the original goal of 20. "So far it's been fairly modest," concedes Stephen Director, dean of Michigan's Engineering School. Michigan's decision to levy the same price it charges for similar courses in America - far higher than Chinese students are used to - could be a factor. "The fees are still an issue," Director admits, "but China's not such a poor country now."

Michigan sees the pact with Jiao Tang as a bridgehead for wider collaboration in the fields of law, medicine and further engineering.

Meanwhile, Director says the university is helping Jiao Tang make the "dramatic transition from Soviet-style institution with a narrow but deep focus to a more diverse US-style institution".

Other US universities are helping Chinese institutions meet surging domestic demand. China has an estimated 120,000 lawyers for a population of 1.2 billion, so law courses are a burgeoning area.

The University of Maryland last year launched China's first criminal law masters degree programme with Nanjing Normal University, after criminal law reforms in China in 1997. When asked about the issue of human rights abuses and academic censorship, Charles Wellford, law professor, says the university has yet to encounter any restrictions on freedom of speech.

In the meantime, the university's experiences of Chinese students highlight the torrid pace of change. Accustomed to the assertiveness of American students, it took a while for Wellford, who taught Maryland's first class in China last year, to adjust to his new students' reticence.

"There's not the same tradition of being interactive," Wellford says. "It certainly led to some awkward moments."

But it didn't take long for the students to shed their reserve. A colleague just back from Nanjing remarked on "how open and willing to engage in discussion the students were".

Next week: Up-and-coming Chinese scholars profiled.

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