‘Quality, not quantity’ key to Chinese internationalisation

Better and more open policies should accompany rapid jump in overseas recruitment, scholars say

March 31, 2021
Young man with national chinese flag in Forbidden City
Source: iStock

China should continue to refine policies and open up options for international students if it wants to continue on its path of rapid internationalisation, according to an analysis in the ECNU Review of Education, published by East China Normal University this month.

While China successfully grew overseas recruitment from nearly nothing to 500,000 students in 40 years, the new focus should be on quality, not quantity, the authors write.

“The Chinese government insists on opening up and internationalising HE, even in the post-pandemic period,” Yuting Zhang, an associate professor at Zhejiang Normal University and the paper’s co-author, told Times Higher Education. “However, quality has been a policy priority in recent years. Expansion at the expense of quality won’t be encouraged any longer.”

The paper recommends having different policies for different types of international students, plus greater institutional autonomy in areas such as degree-programme admissions. It also suggests that universities build up capacity in a variety of majors and not just the ones traditionally popular with international students, such as medicine. The proportion of overseas students enrolled in degree programmes, particularly at the postgraduate level, should be increased.

There should also be quality control in teaching and learning, “considering the differences between international and local students, in terms of political and cultural backgrounds”, the paper says.   

“Universities should have more institutional independence in management, including managing international students; however, this doesn’t mean the absence of government,” Dr Zhang said. “Actually, the government should enhance its responsibility in legislation, supervision and accountability to guarantee education quality.”

Dr Zhang and her co-author, Yu Liao, tracked internationalisation efforts by reviewing 112 policy papers dating back to 1978, when China hosted only 1,236 foreign students and the higher education system was “seriously damaged” by the Cultural Revolution.

That is an enormous contrast to 2018-19, when there were more than 480,000 international students, making China the third largest recipient nation in the world and the largest in Asia. During that period, China adopted increasingly sophisticated ways of interacting with foreign students, including better curriculum design and services such as banking, insurance, healthcare and alumni outreach.

The paper calls 2010 “a new starting point for education development in China”, with international offerings expected to be “compatible with China’s rising international status.” Internationaliation was linked to “national strategy and [the] national image”. Universities were expected to “cultivate large numbers of [international] graduates who know China and treat China [in a] friendly [manner]”.

But one hurdle has actually been domestic, the paper says, as the quality of international students is “questioned by the public”, especially due to a “misunderstanding that the Chinese government sponsors most of those international students through scholarships”.

There is some truth to that view. Overseas recruitment is tied to diplomatic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which includes 10,000 scholarships a year for students from participating countries, most of which are developing nations in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.  

The image problem is compounded by the fact that only about half of international students are in degree programmes, which is a lower proportion than in traditional Western receiving countries.

“Considering the controversy over the quality of education for international students, raising the percentage of degree students is a helpful strategy to realise high-quality expansion,” the paper says.

Recruitment has slowed this year, as it has all over the world, because of Covid border restrictions that have kept international students at home. However, Dr Zhang said that only time would tell if that was a long-term trend.

“Education is a key strategy to enhance China's ‘soft power’,” she said. “Chinese HE is expected to attract more international students by improving its quality.”


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