Monday, 18 January 2016

Critical Thinking: Is the problem Chinese students? Or is it us? It is probably us.

Update 23rd March 2016: This blog entry was originally posted back in January 2016, in response to an article by  Tao Zhang.  Dr Zhang's article made some excellent points on the challenges of integrating Chinese students and helping them adapt to a student-centred HE system and become independent learners. My main issue with Dr. Zhang's article centred around what I believed was an erroneous association between critical thinking and normative values.  

However, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the influx of Chinese student to US universities and the challenges this presents has been met with exasperation by myself and every other foreign academic currently engaged in teaching in China with whom I have spoken. Several dismissed the depiction of Chinese students as thinly-veiled prejudice or a contemporary form of orientalism. Others were stronger in their criticism of what they view as racism, but all were in agreement that the problematisation of Chinese students is a lamentable response to the educational challenge of integrating Chinese students into the campus environment and ensuring their HE experience reaches the world-class standards for which they have ventured overseas.

Additionally, while I and many others have found the WSJ article ("Heavy Recruitment of Chinese Students Sows Discord on US Campuses") to be, at best, fundamentally flawed and, at worst, an example of acceptable prejudice (replace the "Chinese" in "Chinese students" with any other race, ethnicity, religious group and there would be outrage), neither I nor those I have spoken to deny the challenge faced. The growth in international students, and particularly Chinese students, in the US over the last few years presents a major issue. Compounding the issue of sheer numbers are several other factors. Firstly, there is a belief amongst int'l officers and university administrators that limiting recruitment international student recruitment (i.e. to 20% of total numbers) somehow shields the university from the transformative impact of large international cohorts, especially where significant proportion are from a single country. Yet distribution throughout Majors/degrees is anything but even. Chinese students are often concentrated in a narrow range of disciplines (finance, accounting, engineering being the three most prominent). 

A related issue is the on-boarding and integration process for international students, incorporating several aspects but most notably housing arrangements. The tendency of Chinese students to live together is not a Chinese problem: it is a completely understandable response to the pressures of moving to a new country and having to adapt not only to a new academic culture, but to cultural and social conventions which affect every aspect of life. Americans, Brits (foreigners in general) are just as guilty of this when coming to China. Ask any foreigner who has studied at PKU, Tsinghua, BFSU, Beijing Normal, BCLU or any other university in Beijing during the last 10 - 12 years and they will likely tell you they lived in or around Wudaokou district just north of the 4th ring road. A foreign ghetto catering to all the whims of the foreign student with its bars, nightclubs, restaurants and foreign mini-markets. For working foreigners in China, the Former French Concession in Shanghai and larges swathes of Chaoyang district in and around Sanlitun are where you'll find the expat bubbles (often much to the annoyance of local residents - on Yongkang Road in Shanghai, for example).  We are just as guilty of staying within our comfort zone, if not far worse.  Greater attention needs to be paid to assisting international students generally, and Chinese students specifically given the ease with which they can choose to stay within their expat bubble, in creating the conditions under which they are more likely to learn both the on and off-campus cultural terrains they need to negotiate in order to reap the greatest rewards from their educational investment. 

It is in this direction that this discourse must develop: not through a problematisation of Chinese students, but through a dialogue amongst educators, involving all students, as to how the university can provide the conditions most conducive for the flourishing of their students' creativity, criticality and intellectual ability. It is about helping the students realise their investment in themselves.  Housing arrangements, extra and co-curriuclar activities, cultural experiences and induction programs must be developed alongside pedagogy, curriculum and content. 

The WSJ article served to reinforce stereotypes of Chinese students as spoiled, wealthy and intellectually incapable. With that in mind, I'm retweeting and reposting this blog entry with the hope that it both provides both a criticism of the views expressed in the WSJ article and a contribution to a debate on the problematisation of Chinese students.  


Critical Thinking: Is the problem Chinese students? Or is it us? Its probably us.  
In a recent article for Times HigherEducation, Tao Zhang, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University* makes an argument reinforcing the centrality of critical thinking to the British university experience and, more specifically, the need for Chinese students studying in the UK to develop critical thinking skills.  It is a sentiment that is shared by many, including myself.  Zhang writes:

We must surely believe that attempting to engage all our students fully in the practices that define our own enquiry – however unnaturally it may come to some of them – is the first duty of any teacher.” 

However, Zhang’s article is revolves around a discussion which frames the process of critical thinking in terms of Chinese students liberating themselves from “a systematic attempt to inculcate a culture in which criticism of authority is an alien idea” which Zhang claims is at the heart of the Chinese educational tradition under the CCP.

Such a view is unlikely to attract much criticism in western universities. But it plays into a stereotype which I think is hugely problematic. Chinese students in the western classroom are viewed, unfairly, as utilitarian and motivated by extrinsic factors.  The stereotypical view of Chinese students is that of a grade-focused pragmatist with a consumerist mentality towards education and capable of little more than mindless regurgitation.  This is a major problem for academics, and a problem of academics – not the Chinese students themselves.  This problem is compounded by the reduction of overseas students from China by university administrations to that of a revenue channel.  The result is, as Zhang correctly points out, large numbers of Chinese students who bring with them healthy revenue streams in the form of international tuition fees.  In essence, we have a situation where we are complicit in the problematization of Chinese students: our university recruitment teams court them shamelessly, but when they arrive we tar them all with the same brush.  They are often concentrated in programmes in Business, Engineering and Science; housed together with other Chinese students, and largely left to their own devices to adapt. To paraphrase Geoffrey Howe, we’re asking them to step up to bat; knock sixes/homeruns around, but we’re giving them broken cricket/baseball bats to do so. And none of them have ever played cricket/baseball before. If we are so convinced by arguments which apportion blame for their lack of critical thinking skills to the cultural conventions of a Confucianism, can we not devise strategies which overcome this issue? Can we develop better systems to help our Chinese students adapt more quickly to the UK learning environment and educational ethos which underpins it? Is the problem really with the Chinese students, or might I suggest that our own entrenched position is also to blame for the impasse? 

During my Masters research (some time ago), I conducted qualitative research into the experiences of postgraduate students from China at UK universities. An issue identified was the almost complete lack of any attempt to integrate the students, a situation which is arguably worse today given growth in numbers. Several students arriving for Masters study straight from leading Chinese universities were overwhelmed by reading lists, tormenting themselves in trying to absorb everything on both the Core and Recommended reading provided by lecturers: an impossible task in some cases.  Students described being overwhelmed and the catastrophic effect this had on their first few weeks in the UK and on their self confidence. No one had explained to them the basics or what was expected of them in class. There was a fatal assumption that even things like Reading lists are the same in all educational systems.  Often Chinese students are asked to attend English language classes in the summer prior to beginning their course. Students lamented the tedium of these courses, which many of them had spent the previous year attending in China, in preparation for IELTS exams.  In discussions, students enthused at the idea of extra-curriuclar/co-curricular programmes aimed at language immersion in UK culture: guest lectures on aspects of life in Britain (pub etiquette, football culture, British food) and the opportunity to socialise and mix with real British people in real situations.  But please, no more English for Academic Purposes! No more torture by grammar classes!

Another issue I have encountered is the much maligned lack of engagement in the classroom, often conflated with an assumption that the student is not engaged in the class. Teaching at NYU Shanghai for two years, I took the attitude that this lack of willingness to contribute in class was not the students’ fault, but my own. I had expected this to be an issue, given previous experiences teaching Chinese cohorts.  At NYU Shanghai, these were culturally diverse classrooms, with around half the students from China; a third or so from the US, and the remainder from other countries. Intervening to compel quiet students seemed inappropriate as it would adversely affect the opportunity for other students who were willing to contribute enthusiastically to discussion and debate.  I responded by encouraging students who were not so forthcoming(the majority of whom were Chinese, though not exclusively so) that classroom contribution also meant emails, asking questions one-on-one after class, seeing me during office hours, or making an appointment to discuss problems or issues with the course.  Encounters with students via this method were extremely successful, allowing me to respond encouragingly and helping students build their confidence. I also met with every student after the first mid-term to explain the written feedback.  I could have just given them written feedback, but this was a strategy which allowed me to get to know all of my students a little better and build some rapport, know the students by name and have some kind of student-teacher relationship.  After all, if we are quick to blame Confucian conventions for the students’ reticence in contributing to class discussions, then we should also recognize that the route to overcoming this likely also lies in better understanding their expectations. Confucian thought, after all, places social, moral and ethical duties and obligations on both parties in a superior-subordinate relationship. It is not, as many seem to think, a simple relationship between the dominant and the dominated.

Of course, my approaches at NYU Shanghai might not be possible (or necessary) in some circumstances, especially high enrolment programmes in the UK.  The smaller class sizes of the liberal arts approach made it possible. But it revealed and reinforced something to me which I think is lost in almost every account I have read of how to deal with Chinese students. They are young people with ambitions, aspirations, motivations and dreams. They are young people under phenomenal social pressures, largely arising from the expectations placed on them by family.  Most importantly, they are individuals and, like people anywhere in the world, individuals who will respond positively to positive messages of encouragement from their teachers.  But if we exhibit frustration, that is what we will get in return. 

A second aspect of Zhang’s article is the implicit argument that critical thinking must follow some kind of political awakening. I personally disagree with the politicization of critical thinking. A student can be sympathetic to the narratives and values propagated by the CCP and still flourish as a critical thinker, just as students from the US, UK or elsewhere in the western world can be critical thinkers while faithfully advocating the values of individualism, civil liberties and electoral democracy. Specific values are not a precondition for critical thinking, nor are political allegiances. In fact, in discussions with many former students in China, conversation often turns to value of the Chinese modernization project as a valid alternative to what many view as the hypocrisy of western governments and the perceived hiatus between claimed values and actual conduct. Chinese students returning from overseas often demonstrate this insight, while international students returning home from China often find themselves defending China against mindless criticisms back home. Liberal arts and the resultant critical thinking is seemingly universally thought to be the route to a political epiphany and realization of the superiority of western political values.  I would argue strongly that a far more likely result is that, armed with a critical mind and free from the inculcation of western values that we experience through our own education system, young Chinese people will home in on the irreconcilable contradictions between philosophy and reality in their adopted countries. Critical thinking is not a one way street, and that goes some way to explaining the proliferation of liberal arts approaches in and across Chinese universities and Sino-Foreign collaborations, and their encouragement by the Chinese education authorities.

We can all agree with Tao Zhang that we cannot change our core values to accommodate students. This is, after all, what many Chinese students want from their international educational experience. But the conviction that “there can be no compromise” with regards to the “universal” value of critical enquiry smacks of a lack of criticality itself. If we want to do better, we need to better understand the obstacles faced by Chinese students and do more to help them overcome this.  We should not problematize the students.


Saturday, 16 January 2016

US Law Degrees in China: New Announcements by Arizona and Case Western Reserve Scrutinized

The National Law Journal, a major US publication, reported recently that two US universities are branching out to provide US law degrees in China. 

The article outlines two initiatives, by the University of Arizona and Case Western Reserve, to provide US legal education to students at two Chinese universities, Ocean University of China and Zhejiang University. 

According to the article:

“The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, which offers the only bachelor’s degree in law in the United States, has launched a dual degree enabling Chinese law students, while remaining in China, to obtain both a bachelor’s in law from Arizona and an LL.B.— the undergraduate law degree model adopted by many foreign countries.

Meanwhile, Case Western Reserve University School of Law has partnered with Zhejiang University Guanghua Law School to offer a dual Juris Doctor and LL.M. program, allowing Case Western Law students to spend their third year studying in China.”

So let’s look a little further at these, starting with Arizona’s “dual degree”. 

According to the records of officially approved China Foreign Cooperative Runnings School (CFCRS) database, this is not a dual degree.  Only 15 Law degrees (see Table 1 at the end of this article) are permitted for delivery in China with foreign universities.  Arizona’s is listed, but only for delivery of a Chinese law degree.  So what does this mean?

Firstly, it means that this is not a dual degree.  Rather, it is a Chinese degree that is delivered in partnership, usually in the form of teaching by Arizona Professors, on the Ocean University Chinese law degree. The implication of this is that, while the University of Arizona may issue a Bachelor in Laws to students completing this degree over 4years in China, that US degree will not be recognized in the PRC.  Students will still receive the Ocean University Chinese law degree, but any US degree will not be recognized within the PRC and graduates will not be able to use the Arizona degree in application for postgraduate study or jobs within the PRC. Why? Because all PRC citizens must register their degree through one of several processes with the PRC Ministry of Education, devised to combat foreign certificate fraud and foreign HE programs not approved via the correct channels.  This can only be done if (a) the student has studied overseas and had the degree certificate verified by the PRC Embassy in the country where it was delivered (this includes checking the student’s passport to ensure they had the necessary student visas for the duration of the degree); or (b) that the foreign degree is approved for delivery in China.  As Arizona’s students, in this case, will have neither, they will be unable to register their foreign degree, and universities and employers will be unable to verify the authenticity of this degree when double-checking with the Ministry’s database. 

So what is the degree good for? Its valid for students applying for postgraduate study overseas.  I expect that many students will go on to study at Arizona on an LLM, or at other US institutions.

The table below shows all 15 degrees (1 closed in 2012).  Two Joint Education Insititutes offer dual degrees in law: an LLM offered alongside the Chinese Masters at the China-EU Law School, and Reading’s NUIST Reading Academy in Nanjing which offers a dual UG degree in Law.  Only two other Joint Education Programmes (JEPs) exist offering dual degrees at the UG level: Coventry University (UK) and the University of Western Oregon (US)

So the 14 officially approved law degrees involving foreign universities account for 0.97% of the 1445 Sino-Foreign degree programs approved by PRC authorities since 1995, with the first approved law degree only occurring in 2003.  Dual law degrees in Law account for less than half of that, only 4 (or 0.27%) of all 1445 Sino-Foreign degrees. 
TABLE 1 – Sino-Foreign Law Degrees approved under CFCRS
Chinese Uni
Foreign Uni
Chinese Degree
Foreign Degree
China University of Political Science and Law
University of Hamburg (Germany)
Masters of Laws
Est 2008
Nanjing University of Information and Engineering
University of Reading (UK)
Bachelor of Laws
BA in Law
Est 2015
China University of Political Science and Law
University of Minnesota (US)
Masters of Laws

Est 2006
Closed 2012
Tsinghua University
Temple University (US)
Master of Laws
Est 2011
East China University of Political Science and Law
National University of Singapore (Singapore)
Master of Laws
Est 2004
East China University of Political Science and Law
City University of Hong Kong
BA in Law
Certificate of Attendance (Non-degree)
Est 2003
Southwest China University of Political Science and Law
Coventry University (UK)
Bachelor of Laws
Bachelor of Laws (Commercial Law)
Est 2014
Nanjing Normal University
University of Maryland (US)
Masters in Criminal Justice
Est 2013
Yantai University
University of Western Oregon
Bachelor of Laws
Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
Est 2013
China Ocean University
University of Arizona (US)
Bachelor of Laws
Est 2015
Heilongjiang University
University of Leeds (UK)
Bachelor of Laws
Est 2013
Harbin University of Science and Technology
Novosibirsk State Technical University
Bachelor of Laws
Est 2012
Northeast Forestry University
Vladivostock State University of Economics and Service
Bachelor of Laws
Est 2013
Daqing Normal University
Blagoveschensk State Pedagocical University
Bachelor of Laws
Est 2013

As you’ve probably noted, Case Western Reserve’s tie-up with Zhejiang University, and referred to in the National Law Journal, is nowhere to be seen.  Why is this? 

This is likely due to the fact that CWR faculty will not be involved in teaching in the PRC.  Only 2 CWR students will attend Zhejiang each year, with 2 Zhejiang students going to CWR for a year of study.  

The CWR students will receive their CWR JD degree, but also a Zhejiang LLM, following a year of study at Zhejiang.  TheLLM they gain from Zhejiang for this year will also contribute credits towards their CWR JD degree.  For the two Zhejiang students who go to CWR, they will study towards a CWR LLM, which Zhejiang will recognize towards their own JD. 

So this tie-up is not a dual degree either, but rather a mutual exchange and credit recognition arrangement that is approved by CWR on the US end, and by Zhejiang Education Bureau on the Chinese side.  However, because the Zhejiang students will go to the US and study 1 year for the CWR LLM, they will be able to get this degree recognized by the PRC Embassy in the US prior to their return to China.  This means that, unlike the Arizona arrangement, they will graduate with a Chinese JD and a US LLM, both of which will  be recognized in the PRC. 

This latter model works only because the US  LLM component is delivered in the US, not in China.  And because the arrangement can be processed through exchange agreement protocols and mutual credit recognition, it is a common method used to circumvent to CFCRS regulations, at least with regards to professional legal education which often allows students to pursue LLM during their pursuit of a JD qualification.  It isn’t really a model that works for academic qualifications though: there would be little point offering a Masters degree as part of a doctoral programme as doctoral programmes are (a) research focused, not classroom based, taught; (b) many doctoral candidates will hold a Masters prior to applying for a PhD, and (c) why pursue a Masters degree if already enrolled on a PhD programme? 

This article caught my attention largely because it is yet another example of universities pushing out the marketing speak to claim they are “the first” to be doing this type of programme in China.  That’s categorically not the case in either example, and the claims of dual degree status are certainly misleading if viewed from the Chinese regulator’s perspective.  Arizona’s model is the same as those of the University of Leeds’ (UK) arrangement with Heilongjiang University, and with three Russian universities, all of which were established in 2012 or 2013.  Case Western Reserve’s model is constituted of two exchange arrangements both of which have been used for a long time by other law schools.  Case’s model is arguably the better one, as it removes any ambiguity over the validity of the US degree issued: Case’s LLM will be recognized in China. 

But what is really interesting about these cases is that it shows that US universities are actively engaging in teaching collaborations without getting those degrees approved through CFCRS. This is a point which is almost completely missed in commentary on foreign university activity in China, and which these new Law degrees announced by Arizona and Case Western Reserve illustrate quite well.  Most discourse centres around “academic freedom”, largely due to a very paranoid, and usually incorrect, outsiders perspective on how the CCP and PRC government authorities operate in Chinese universities.  But a much greater issue for all forms of Sino-Foreign collaboration is that of institutional autonomy.  The CFCRS regulations require all degrees to be approved prior to recruitment of students. 
If we look at the seven Sino-Foreign Joint ventures, there are zero Law degrees approved, and only two at the 57 Sino-Foreign Joint Institutes, with a further 12 approved as joint programmes.  In China, degrees classed as deliverable under a Law Faculty also includes Politics, Sociology and other social science subjects.   Only one single Sociology degree has ever been approved for delivery through Sino-Foreign collaboration over a period of 20 years from 1995 to 2015: a BA in Sociology which awards a Hong Kong Baptist degree at United International College.  A certificate of study is awarded by Beijing Normal University, but no Chinese degree.  Not a single politics or political science degree (Chinese, Foreign or Dual) has ever been approved for delivery through the CFCRS regulatory system.  Related social science degrees, such as in social work, have only been approved for foreign-only degrees (this means they must recruit outside the Chinese NCEE or NPEE university entrance exams).  Invariably, those that have been approved are degrees in subjects such as Public Management, Social Work, Sustainability and Environmental Management at the UG and PG levels.

Such limits on institutional autonomy are a far more significant reality within the Sino-Foreign HE landscape than censorship, self-censorship or CCP interference in curriculum.  In fact, in a decade on China and working in and around Sino-Foreign collaborations, the only examples of this have been of textbooks which failed to make it passed overzealous import officials at the port.  And even then, the import authorities either simply refused to allow them to pass, or they arrived heavily and clumsily censored.

With the approval of degrees, however, China does maintain a strict control over what degree programmes are approved.  And as far as approving degrees or majors in subject such as Law, Politics, Sociology and other social sciences, there remains a clear indication that PRC education authorities are not yet comfortable in allowing foreign universities anything like the level of freedom they have in developing degree programmes in Business and STEM.