Chinese students ‘most likely to face racism’ in UK post-Covid

Increased discrimination may be hangover from pandemic, say researchers behind International Student Barometer

July 8, 2024
a banner hangs at the front of a London house with the caption 'Always Welcome'
Source: iStock/gregbunbury

Chinese students are much more likely to report discrimination at UK universities than students of other nationalities, according to the findings of a large survey.

The International Student Barometer (ISB), which is produced by Etio (formerly Tribal Education Services), polled 122,975 international students at 155 institutions across 24 countries for its 2024 edition.

The results showed that international students at UK institutions have experienced levels of discrimination similar to that of the global ISB average over the past three years – 22 per cent reported this – and feel just as welcome and have a greater sense of belonging.

However, researchers found “stark variations” between different nationalities, with students from East and South-east Asian (ESEA) backgrounds most likely to be affected.

Students from China were the most frequently victimised, with 41 per cent reporting having faced discrimination because of their race or ethnicity – up from 35 per cent in the 2022 study.

Campus resource: Questions to ask yourself about your role in institutional racism

This is double the proportion of Indian students (20 per cent) who reported discrimination, and above the rates reported by Nigerians (18 per cent), Pakistanis (23 per cent) and Americans (12 per cent).

Sam Camden, client consultant for performance benchmarking at Etio, said one potential hypothesis was that the relatively high prevalence of discrimination against ESEA students in the UK was a “potential hangover from the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Mr Camden said hate crimes against Asians rose amid the frequent “apportioning of blame for the virus’ origination on China”, but such attitudes had softened as the pandemic receded from people’s immediate memory and should continue to wane.

However, given that students of all ages and from all ESEA backgrounds have continued to face problems, “something more pervasive” may be occurring, he suggested.

The ISB report did find some good news for the sector – the frequency of discrimination faced does not appear to correlate with a significantly diminished sense of belonging, or feeling of being welcome, among students from ESEA backgrounds.

Mr Camden said there was “clearly more work to be done” by the UK sector to reduce discrimination against international students, particularly those from Asia.

“The frequency of discrimination faced by this group of students was significantly higher than the UK average, and consistent across all years of study, meaning this cannot simply be dismissed as a pandemic-related aberration,” he added.

“This is not to create a hierarchy of discrimination when discussing inclusivity policy, but to highlight the fact that the experience of international students cannot be homogenised.”

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Reader's comments (3)

"Of the five largest nationality cohorts at UK universities, students from China were again by some margin the most frequently discriminated against in terms of both race or ethnicity, and nationality, with 41% reporting having faced discrimination on these bases (up from 35% and 37% respectively in the 2022 study)." Without access to the research methodology, we should be wary of the assumption that someone has been "discriminated against" because they reported "having faced discrimination". Through personal experience, I am wary. I and a member of my teaching team were once accused of being racist markers because, with heavy heart, we gave low marks to some unfortunate Chinese students whose English was almost non-existent. The accusers were unmovable in their racist victimhood when I pointed out that the top three marks in my subject went to Chinese students.
'Chinese students are much more likely to report discrimination at UK universities than students of other nationalities, according to the findings of a large survey.' There is a world of difference between experiencing and reporting - the fact these students feel able to report is a good thing but may be that others are experiencing the same and not saying a word . That is every bit as concerning.
What is usually missed in those individual-level studies is the wider social, political and media discursive context affecting, inter alia, the emotive experiences, subliminal sentiments, and manifest attitudes of individuals (including their subjectivities and collective identities alike). Explanation must contextualise beyond positive studies. The higher level of actual and/or perceived racism and xenophobia towards Chinese is no surprise really, considering the escalating geopolitical tensions between "the West" and China (the associated propaganda works both ways, btw). This is on top of the "normal" levels of chauvinism, xenophobia, and racism toward "outsiders" amongst populations (courtesy of our tribal past).