Saturday, July 15, 2017

Is it too easy for foreign students to get into Chinese universities?

Peking University's famous Weiming Lake

Recently a spate of articles have appeared in Chinese social media lamenting the fact that it is too easy for international students to gain access to Chinese universities, compared to what it takes for local students. This may have been precipitated by a change to the regulations of some Chinese universities, including Tsinghua, which appear to have made it even easier for foreign students to apply.

It is certainly true that it is far easier for foreign students to gain access to Chinese universities than it is for their local counterparts. China's 高考 exams are notoriously hellish, and competition is cutthroat. By comparison, although things change according to the university and the case, very often a foreign student only needs to apply to get into a Chinese university, sometimes with a Chinese government scholarship to boot. For postgraduate courses, an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject may be required. Then again, sometimes even a degree in an unrelated subject may do.

Most international students who want to study in China do face one serious obstacle: they need to pass an HSK language exam to qualify for degrees taught in the Chinese language. Although some Chinese universities now offer special postgraduate degree programs taught in English, I think the majority of foreign students apply for degrees taught in Chinese, since they see learning Chinese as half the point of studying in China.

The fact that many foreign students need to pass a difficult language exam to study in China is not necessarily mentioned in these online diatribes. When it is, people lament that the policy favours foreign students with a Chinese background, who are already familiar with the Chinese language. Resentment of kids from rich Chinese families who have acquired foreign passports through various means and can thus apply to top Chinese universities as foreign nationals is often what lies behind these grumblings. As someone commented online, "years of strenuous study aren't worth as much as a foreign passport for getting into a Chinese university".

Other articles, like this one written by a university professor, lament the fact that the foreign students who come to China are not as "high-quality" as the ones studying in America, and not even as good as the local students. There is probably a certain closed-mindedness behind these assessments (the foreign students' mathematical skills aren't as good as the Chinese students' ones, while their critical thinking skills are not being considered), and hearing Chinese complain that the foreigners who come to their country are "poor-quality" is sadly a common refrain in all fields.

It is certainly true that Chinese universities are unable to attract the children of the global elite and the world's most brilliant students the way American or British ones can. In most developing countries, studying in China is a second choice for people who do not have the means to get a degree from a Western country. Students from the West who get degrees in China usually do so because they are curious to experience life in China for a few years, because they want to learn Chinese or because their field of study is related to China. But it is understood that the most brilliant students are not all clamouring to come to China, even to the top universities like Tsinghua and Beida.

The fact remains that if the Chinese want to attract the best international students from around the world, then they have to work on improving their universities. My prediction is that as long as China's political system doesn't fundamentally change, China's top universities will not be able to compete with the best global ones in terms of ground-breaking research and creating a lively intellectual atmosphere, no matter how many funds the government pours into them.

This is not to deny that the best universities in Beijing and Shanghai are actually quite good, with competent professors and students who regularly produce research published in top international journals. But the intellectual atmosphere remains stifling. The recently announced new rules for international students won't help matters. It is also noticeable that if you look at China's Oxford and Cambridge, Tsinghua and Beida (Peking University), the foreign students are intentionally being concentrated in Tsinghua, which focuses more on science and engineering, rather than in Beida, which focuses more on the social sciences. I think it isn't hard to see why.

For Chinese universities, accepting lots of foreign students is also a way of ensuring that they can climb up in the international rankings. Most such rankings include "internationalization" as one of the factors universities are assessed upon, something which also harms the notoriously insular Japanese institutions of higher learning. Having a high proportion of foreign students and staff gets you a higher ranking, and given that the Chinese government is obsessed with China's image and with world rankings of any kind, I find it quite probable that they are handing out scholarships to foreign students simply as a way to help Tsinghua and other universities climb up in the ranks.

Much of what lies behind these complaints about how easy it is for foreign students to get into local universities is a misplaced frustration over problems that are entirely internal and homegrown. The article I linked above starts off with the statement that Peking University enrols 200 South Korean undergraduates every year, and only 100 from the whole of Shandong province. In China this is an incendiary matter. Students from Shandong, an overcrowded province, notoriously have to go through hellish competition to get into a good university in Beijing, literally winning out over millions of competitors. Youngsters from Beijing or Shanghai can get in far more easily, something which causes much resentment. Would this state of affairs change if the university took in less South Koreans or other foreign students? Of course not.

If nothing else, such grumblings will pretty certainly have no effect whatsoever on the policies of Chinese universities and the educational authorities, who will continue to enrol international students to the extent that they feel is useful to their needs.


Richard said...

I'm curious - about how many Westerners are studying at Tsinghua?

Ji Xiang said...

Um, I don't know the exact number. When I studied there, there quite a few, although they were dwarfed by the number of Koreans. We must be talking hundreds if not a few thousand.

FOARP said...

Hmm.. interesting.

Back in 2003-2005 actual foreign undergraduate students studying within actual Chinese universities (rather than schools attached to Chinese universities, like the John Hopkins school attached to Nanjing University, or the foreign studies school attached to South Eastern University that I studied at) were vanishingly rare. There were foreign masters/PhD students of course, but not undergraduate.

The overwhelming majority of foreign students I knew in Nanjing were exchange students from John Hopkins and South Korean universities which had relationships with Chinese universities. A smaller group were from various African countries - typically the children of apparently extraordinarily wealthy African government officials.

There was no question of a check on quality - if you could pay, you would get in.