Overseas students fear losing degrees as China borders stay shut

Entry ban compounded by lack of flexibility on degree time limits, publishing requirements and accreditation transfer

May 31, 2021
Equipment technicians repair a wheel rake in a field in China as a metaphor for overseas students fear losing degrees as China borders stay shut
Source: Getty

International students are increasingly fearful that their hopes of securing a degree from a Chinese university will be dashed by the country’s 16-month entry ban.

The challenges faced by the thousands of learners trapped outside China during the coronavirus pandemic have been compounded by a lack of flexibility on degree time limits, publishing requirements and accreditation transfer, Times Higher Education has been told.

Many of the students involved are from Asia and Africa, and a large proportion are medical students or postgraduate researchers in science and engineering subjects.

One poll conducted earlier this month by the China International Student Union (CISU) found that 75 per cent of overseas learners now had a more negative view of China. A key problem, cited by 65 per cent of respondents, was that China’s degree time limits were both inflexible and “unmeetable”, given that students could not return to clinics and laboratories.

Several Indian medical students told THE that their Chinese institutions, possibly under pressure to issue degrees in a particular time frame, resorted to sending PowerPoint slides or online videos in lieu of clinical practice for essential skills such as surgery. 

Even if degrees were granted, they would be practically useless without actual training in treating patients.

One student, who is enrolled at a Beijing medical school but stuck in India, said “decisions are all over the place. Some [Indian] states allow [Chinese-enrolled] medical students to do internships, while others consider the Chinese degrees null and void.” 

Another, who had gone into debt to study in China, said that “without clinical experience, I cannot be board-certified in India. And if I cannot practise, I cannot become a doctor and pay back my loan.”

The problem has also affected researchers in other subjects.

A North African PhD candidate told THE that she had prepared simulations for an engineering experiment in China, but cannot make the prototype because of a lack of laboratory access. Her main problem is a four-year term limit in her admission letter. 

“I only have two years left, and I have to publish two journal articles, which is impossible without lab experiments,” she said. “The problem in China is that the rules are rules, and there are no exceptions.” She did not fault her professors, saying that one even took time on his weekends to coach her. 

One Pakistani PhD candidate agreed that his Chinese supervisor was personally supportive. However, he received text messages from his university cancelling his scholarship, charging him fees, and telling him to find a new doctoral adviser. 

The CISU poll showed that 64 per cent of students supported better credit- or accreditation-transfer arrangements between China and their home countries, which would allow them to finish clinical and laboratory work in nearby facilities.

Curtis Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, told THE that “the inconsistent treatment of international students has been a soft power failure for China”.

“What is important is that international students are treated with consistency and compassion,” he said. “Clear communications and transparency are also critical. And here, China, in the eyes of many students, has come up short.”

The number of foreign students in China tripled in a little over a decade, from 162,000 in 2006 to 492,000 in 2019.


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