A lot rides on their journeys

Chinese students’ economic contributions aren’t always matched by the support they get. More must be done to understand and integrate this group

December 12, 2019
Chinese athletes
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Visiting a Russell Group university recently, I caught a cab from the station to the campus.

The driver launched into the usual chat about students – as ever, the population of several thousand young people with places to be but no wheels of their own was crucial to his livelihood.

But if he was a fan of students in general, he was a superfan of Chinese students. He told me with incredulity about the daily business of ferrying Chinese undergraduates from their halls of residence to lecture halls just half a mile away. What amazed him most was that a group of four friends would wait outside, all heading to the same place, but order four cabs rather than sharing a ride.

The tale is a small reminder of a couple of things. One is the cultural differences that separate international students from others on British campuses, and which still make integration difficult.

The other is how economically important international students are up and down the country – not only to taxi drivers, but to universities themselves.

Much of the discussion about overseas students inevitably focuses on this latter point – particularly in the UK and Australia – and in recent months it has evolved into growing anxiety that this financial reliance has left Western universities vulnerable to undue influence from foreign governments.

The suggestion is that they are compromising on crucial matters of academic freedom to avoid biting the hand that feeds them.

In a panel discussion at the recent THE Live event in London, however, the point was rightly made that such claims must be subject to the same scrutiny and standards of evidence as any other.

Sarah Churchwell, chair in public understanding of the humanities at the School of Advanced Study, said that when reading recent news reports on the issue “as a historian I kept seeing the old American headlines about the ‘Yellow Peril’ and ‘the Chinese are coming for us’.

“I felt that it had an undertone at least that we have to be vigilant about, and recognise that there are precedents here that can get reactivated – cultural biases and bigotries that can be brought back.”

Questions of China’s growing influence will continue to be asked: it is one of the big geopolitical tensions of our time, as the unrest in Hong Kong has amply demonstrated.

But when it comes to the role of higher education – which remains a key touchpoint between East and West – far less attention is paid to how Western universities treat the tens of thousands of young Chinese who come to study in them.

It is worth reflecting not just on the financial investment, but also the huge leap of faith that these students are taking to enter a world that is as different for them as the reverse would be for an 18-year-old moving from London to Beijing.

In our cover feature this week, we unpick this question – and the contributions do not make comfortable reading.

The culture shock experienced is not limited to language, although that is a major hurdle even for those who have passed the relevant exams.

As Yun Yu, a research fellow in the Faculty of Education at East China Normal University, explains: “Many find that it’s very hard to get used to the educational system. The curriculum, pedagogy, what kind of essays your tutor would like: nobody seems to know. Students sometimes feel desperate and disappointed.”

For universities, these are issues that can be addressed far more directly than the broader debates about geopolitics, with the potential to exert a powerful influence of their own (and our cover story has some suggestions about the form such engagement might helpfully take).

Call it soft power if you will, but don’t underestimate it.

Universities must hold firm to their principles of free speech and academic freedom. But if they can find ways to redouble efforts to really understand and engage with students from such different cultural backgrounds, tackle the marginalisation, isolation and confusion that many feel in an educational system so different from that in which they grew up, they’ll help them on this steepest of learning curves and bolster their own internationalist ideals. It’s what these young people have travelled thousands of miles for, after all: not to sit like fee-paying customers alone in the back of a cab.


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