One of the frequently cited benefits of higher education is its role in producing graduates who embrace tolerance and progressive thinking.
But the preliminary findings of a new study suggest that this does not necessarily apply to institutions in China, with students in the country even using their university education to justify prejudices against minority groups such as gays and lesbians.
In-depth interviews with 68 university students and recent graduates found that an overwhelming majority of respondents (65) did not support the legalisation of same-sex marriage or civil rights for gays and lesbians.
Nearly all interviewees (66) also expressed doubts about the aims and objectives of feminist societies on campus in the study “Social attitudes of university students in contemporary China”.
And some respondents sought to use the knowledge derived from their studies to justify their discrimination, according to Ye Liu, lecturer in international development at King's College London.
One 24-year-old postgraduate student from a medical school told the researchers that, to his “medical knowledge”, homosexuality is a “type of mental illness”.
“Some people experience trauma early in life, and this trauma is transformed into a distortion of sexuality," he said. "Therefore, homosexuality is a mental disease which can be cured by medical methods.”
When asked further whether he would consider homosexuality as biologically natural, the student said his view was based on medical knowledge and evidence and was therefore more scientific than other explanations.
A 24-year-old postgraduate in legal studies from an elite university shared the view of homosexuality as a “mental disease” and proposed a legal framework that could “constrain the dangerous behaviours of homosexuals”.
The narratives illustrated how university education had equipped the students with a “professional language” that “justified and perpetuated discrimination and social injustice against LGBT groups”, according to the study, which was presented by Dr Liu at a seminar hosted by UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education.
“The rhetoric and the general attitudes regarding homosexuality among university students raised serious doubts about the role of higher education and university experiences in achieving tolerance, trust and cohesion in contemporary society,” it adds.
In the study, a 25-year-old master’s student at an elite institution cited her education when explaining why she did not think “feminist approaches would work in our society”.
“The feminists are so angry. They all sound very radical, which I find difficult to relate to,” she said. “My education and upbringing made me rational. A rational and calm approach would be much better.”
The study says the priority of Chinese university education in knowledge learning and skills production “leaves little room for cultivating ‘civic minds’”.
Dr Liu told Times Higher Education that it was “concerning” that students’ prejudices were “dressed up in a seemingly professional language”.
She added that she was “not optimistic” that Chinese universities would start promoting tolerance of marginalised groups in the future.
"First, the competitive university culture allows expressive individualism to thrive while undermining the collective consciousness of the public good and social issues," she said. “Second, there has been an increasing emphasis on the role of universities in promoting socialist ideology, which leaves little space for university students to develop civic commitments and consciousness."