Student view: an Englishman in China

January 1, 1990

Written by Lewis McCarthy    3 April 2013

Ahead of the inaugural Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings on 10 April, Lewis McCarthy gives a personal account of his time studying in China.

Looking for a combined education and cultural challenge? China opens up an expanding range of study possibilities.

During my time at Nottingham University's Ningbo campus and then at Shanghai Jiao Tong University I have climbed mountains, slept on the Great Wall, travelled widely and have been wined and dined by Chinese officials as an "ambassador" from my hometown of Cheltenham in the UK. Anyone studying in China will soon discover it is a place of irresistible adventure as well as a place where higher education is valued as both a social and business "passport".

University life is characteristically different to that in the UK but China has a growing international student community - over 290,000 international students in 2011. The opportunities are never ending, amenities run night and day and living expenses are much less than in the UK. £10 might buy a taxi journey across a city or a four course dinner for two. And if you are wrapped up in essays and revision then you can rely on McDonalds - who deliver to your door!

Like anywhere away from home, communication can occasionally be a problem but there is usually someone nearby who can speak some English and the Chinese are keen to practise and to offer assistance. A surprising amount can be achieved with just a few key phrases, a winning smile and a show of appreciation.

Meeting local people is one of the most enjoyable ways to learn more about the country and culture. The Chinese are exceptionally hospitable and helpful explaining cultural differences and perceived oddities. Learning social protocols is important.

With a population of over 1.3 billion people, competition in China is fierce. Wherever you are you will meet extremely capable and quite determined people. In Shanghai I encountered students who met religiously every Saturday morning to practice their English regardless of other calls on their time. Study and language are seen as the means to "get on".

From an education and career point of view, the benefits of studying in China are appealing and expanding.

Recent graduates in the UK can find it difficult to acquire corporate access and develop useful connections. In China the relatively confined nature of expat communities and the local demand for foreign graduates enhances networking and career opportunities. It's a surprisingly small world for a huge country. Eating out in a remote part of China I literally bumped into a director of a large American technology company and in a queue in Shanghai I found myself next to the regional head of recruitment for a global communications conglomerate. These experiences are not as atypical as they sound. Expats are drawn to China and to each other. Just by being in China, there is already a shared connection and people really make the most of it. The Chinese imperative to "get on" is infectious even for visitors.

Many students opt to stay in or return to China for language study or to pursue a career there. They have typically found jobs in professional services, marketing and as a financial backstop in teaching English. I chose to study a China-focused Masters degree.

Would I recommend studying in China, absolutely... but there is only one way to find out.

Lewis McCarthy is currently studying an MSc, China in a Comparative Perspective at the London School of Economics.

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