“Students from China have been raised in a cultural environment where knowledge and wisdom – acquired through education – have existed as fundamental core values since Confucian times,” said Kylie Redfern, an associate professor in management and psychology at the University of Technology Sydney.
“These cultural norms, along with the one-child policy, place enormous pressure on the Chinese student.”
High school students in China spend years preparing for the gao kao, two intense days of exams that determine whether they will win a place at a high-ranking institution such as Tsinghua or Beijing university. However, a growing number of students are instead bypassing the gao kao and choosing to go to university abroad.
“There is a more or less universal idea in China that higher education abroad is more cutting edge and enjoyable than its Chinese counterpart,” said Anders Sybrandt Hansen, an assistant professor in the School of Culture and Society at Aarhus University in Denmark. “This notion is underpinned by the university ranking industry that generally places Western institutions in the top spots.”
Not only is studying abroad perceived to be good for employment prospects, but it is also considered by many young Chinese students to be an adventure; a chance to enjoy a change of scenery and a less intensely competitive environment.
A recent study conducted by Dr Redfern and published in the Australian Journal of Psychology, however, suggests that Chinese students could still be suffering from heightened stress and anxiety when studying abroad.
Using surveys and discussions, Dr Redfern looked into the incidence of depression, anxiety and stress in Chinese international students and local students at a major Australian university. She found that Chinese international students reported significantly higher levels of stress and anxiety than local students.
The reasons for their stress and anxiety tended to be culture-specific. Unlike local Australian students, Chinese students cited family pressures as a major source of stress. One student described how their parents used Skype to watch them study, telling them to work harder and later into the night.
While Australian students were most troubled about their workload, Chinese students were concerned about the different expectations of the new educational system.
“In many places [Chinese international students] will come across forms of pedagogy that most Chinese students are not used to, for example group work, and [being encouraged] to ask questions during class,” said Dr Hansen, adding that the different youth culture they experienced on a Western campus was also a possible source of stress. This was all on top of the usual pressures for international students to contend with, such as discrimination, homesickness and the language barrier, he said.
Universities have a duty, Dr Redfern’s study recommends, to be aware of cultural differences and to address students’ problems in a “culturally specific” way. In China, for instance, conditions such as anxiety are often attributed to physical problems and patients are less likely to seek counselling or other mental health support.
“Chinese students will not front up at the counsellor’s office to talk about their anxiety with a complete stranger in a foreign language,” said Dr Redfern.
“What’s lacking are systematic and embedded programmes that offer training, coping resources and academic support for all students from day one. Universities need a system where they can ‘check in’ with every student on a regular basis. Where these relationships exist, it is more likely that problems will be detected early, or that the student will seek help.”