Saturday, 6 April 2019

Pursuing a University Education Overseas: Advice for Chinese Students

Posted below is the original English version of an article published by Financial Times Chinese 金融时报中文版 on Friday 5th April.  Thanks to the FT Chinese team for the translation.  

Pursuing a University Education Overseas: Advice for Chinese Students
Published in Financial Times Chinese 金融时报中文版:

Friday 5th April 2019

Over the last decade, the number of Chinese citizens pursuing a university education overseas has exploded.  According to figures from the Ministry of Education for 2017, 608,400 international students from China were enrolled on university degree programmes around the world, with the largest numbers in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.  
            As many FT Chinese readers may be aware, articles on Chinese international students have appeared frequently in the media coverage of the higher education sector over the last decade, including concerns over their impact on the campus environment, the rapid growth of recruitment from China, and issues of academic integrity and plagiarism. More recently, the role of the Chinese Student and Scholar Associations (CSSA), which affiliated to the PRC Embassy’s Education Section, has come under scrutiny, with accusation they are represent a threat to the value of academic freedom. 
            More recently, incidents at Duke University and the University of Maryland in the US, and the University of Liverpool in the UK, have raised concerns over different forms prejudiced against international students from China.  At Maryland, a Professor recently resigned his tenured position following allegations he accused students of cheating on the basis of their nationality. At Duke, faculty raised a complaint with senior management that students were speaking in Chinese on campus, with the Director of Graduate Studies then sending an email requesting student to speak in English only on campus.  The Director issued an apology before stepping down from the Director of Studies position, while Duke President Vincent Price and the entire senior management team at Duke issued a statement clarifying the institution’s commitment to the values of equality and diversity.
            All the issues raised in media coverage on Chinese international students are prominent in the minds of educators at universities and their potential impact both inside the classroom and across the broader campus environment. While some incidents demand a stricter line, any formal action taken is not due to the nationality of the student, but only where student conduct, regardless of nationality, does not uphold the values which students commit to when they accept an offer to study at university.  In addition, universities have been consistently clear that Chinese international students are a valued and welcome part of the university community.
            There are, however, challenges which are arguably more difficult for our Chinese international students to overcome.  While universities are actively exploring and adapting to help our students adjust and integrate to university life in a foreign country, the students themselves, and the way they perceive the university, their professors and themselves, is the single most important factor. Many of the views expressed here are communicated to all my students, regardless of nationality, but discussed here to help any prospective or current students from China consider understand how they can empower themselves and gain the maximum benefit from their study overseas. 
            The decision to attend a university overseas is a major commitment made by both the student and their family back in China. While parents face pressures to finance their children’s studies and living expenses, the pressures on students are also pronounced, with students very aware of the sacrifices their parents and family make to provide this opportunity for them.  Yet, while these pressures can motivate students to focus on their studies, a number of other factors combine to present young students from China with a range of obstacles to achieving their potential. These include the prospect of leaving China and venturing to another country; undertaking a university education in a second language; integrating into the broader cultural environment of their host country, and adapting to a very different educational system.
            This last aspect, of adjusting to the university educational philosophy, is perhaps the most challenging to overcome and, it is very important to note, represents an adjustment that all students need to make when moving from high school to university.  In high schools around the world the focus is usually always on passing an exam. Grades mean everything. Teachers and schools are focused on getting students through the exams. Nowhere on Earth is this more true than in China’s high school system with the ruthless Gaokao exam. Yet, if students bring this exam focus with them to university, it not only limits their academic development, but also denies them a true university education.
To address this issue, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: what is a university education aimed at accomplishing?  One standard answer is that a university education allows students to obtain a degree. In such a university, success is measured by grades and performance. Classes aim to fill a student’s mind with knowledge. Professors educate their students. The problem with this view is that it reduces a university to a process of credentialing; defines knowledge as fixed, and reifies education as something which is done to students. If this is all that a university education provides, then why not save money and ask students to read books or take an online degree? Or is there another way we can think of a university education? Can we change the way our students view the university and the way they view themselves?
            To answer this, we really need to confront the question of what families are paying for when they pay university tuition fees.  Students are not buying a degree.  If this were, true, the degree itself would become worthless, something available to anyone with sufficient funds.  So, what are tuition fees buying?  The very simple answer is that we are buying three things for our children when we pay for their university education: freedom, opportunity and time.  Freedom from the need for our sons and daughters to earn money to survive. Opportunities for new experiences within the university’s vibrant scholarly and extracurricular environment. Time to both identify and transform themselves into the person they wish to be. We are not buying a university degree. We are investing in an education which will allow our children to become who they want to be, find the path they wish to take, and decide how they will contribute to society.  If this argument is persuasive, the next question we must ask ourselves is “how can students get the most out of this investment”?  Students who view their university education as a system of credentialing, of simply obtaining a qualification, will not only struggle to perform at university, they will very likely not enjoy the experience. This attitude effectively means the student is not “at university” but is simply taking courses towards a certificate.  Changing the way our students view themselves, their professors and the university itself, is absolutely essential in getting the greatest benefit of a university education.
There are generally two ways to view the university.  The first is probably the most common: as a form of production line.  Students go through each semester taking classes and taking assessments, with grades measuring the improvements made.  This view implies that education is a something which is done to a student, and that all students entering university are as well prepared as each other.  Yet, universities are not factories.  A far more suitable and appropriate analogy involves considering online games like League of Legends, World of Warcraft, or Fortnite.  The university provides a rich world where students exist for the duration of their studies.  Students aim to accumulate various weapons, skills, tools and knowledge – with every student creating and building a very different and unique profile as they explore this world.  This cannot be achieved solely through attending classes and sitting exams, but through active engagement in extracurricular activities, sports, societies, internships, community engagement and other activities which allow students to build a variety of skills.
Outside China, this expanded understanding of a university education is also vital for enhancing engagement in the classroom.  As Fei Xiaotong, the renowned sociologist, argued, western societies function differently from Chinese society 团体格局, emphasizing individual identity over social conventions.  Fei argues that, in western society, identity is indicated to others by your membership of groups. Which extracurricular groups you join indicate your individual identity to other people, while friendships and networks centre around the identity you create for yourself and the groups you join. This applies to membership of sports clubs, political parties, pressure groups and student societies. Contrast this with Fei’s model of Chinese society 差序格局 where your identity and, crucially, appropriate conduct is determined by the person you’re interacting with and the social role you are performing: you are a father, a son, a wife, a sister, a student, an employee, an manager or a friend – and behave accordingly in those settings. Yet, in a western university classroom - be it in the UK, US, Australia, Canada or elsewhere - students are expected to bring their identity to class, to show their classmates and professors who they really are and where their interests lie. This is vital aspect of classroom dynamics which helps professors build rapport with students and enriches the educational experience for all concerned. If we know who you are, we can make the class more meaningful and important for you.
In this regard, extracurricular activities are arenas for independent learning and socializing, allowing students to develop language, cross-cultural and social skills, along with developing their time management, organizational and team-working abilities.  Whether students participate in sports clubs, academic societies, business forums, or pursue hobbies related to the arts, music and culture, participation allows them to both build networks with others and transform themselves.  This is where students put theory into practice, acquiring not only knowledge but a range of skills and experiences, similar to the way characters in online games acquire new weapons, tools, attributes and friends who allow them to not only survive but thrive. There is, however, a vital and crucial difference between online games and university : online games are virtual, but all students, regardless of the success they achieve in transforming themselves through their university education, must enter real world upon graduation. And who they are at the point they graduate is shaped by their engagement inside and outside the classroom. 
Within the classroom, Professors are often viewed as fountains of knowledge. Yet in contemporary universities, our role is not simply to transfer content from ourselves to our students. The best professors show a range of characteristics that include passion for their own subject; genuine care for the students they teach, and the ability to build rapport with their students. Our goal as university lecturers is not to ensure our students all acquire the same knowledge, but to help our students discover their own interests and bring their own perspectives. Our primary function is to ensure students do not get lost exploring the university world, acting as guides to keep them on track, with the hope our classes will provide a spark which lights the fires in our students’ minds. The best students are always those who have an intrinsic interest in the subject they study, coupled with extrinsic motivations to build a career around the subjects which fascinate them personally. Furthermore, in a straight competition on the job market after graduation, the student who has identified their true passion and is genuinely enthusiastic about their chosen path will undoubtedly, over time, outperform other students whose motivations come from solely external rewards. If you don’t love something and compete against someone who does, you will ultimately fail. Similarly, the best students understand that knowledge is neither fixed nor perfect, and that critical thinking is not so much a skill as a disposition or way of viewing the world aimed at refining one’s own understanding of it. Those students explore their subject with the aim of understanding, rather than just absorbing and memorizing information. Academically, they focus on forming strong arguments which they can support with evidence and rational discussion and are concerned less with producing work which is right or wrong.
            This all leads to the question of what students from China can do themselves to ensure they succeed in their studies and reap the greatest rewards from this investment. There are certain habits which all the most successful students have: attending all classes, organizing time and having a clear schedule for exam revision and coursework deadlines. Yet for students from China in particular, there are other important considerations.  Firstly, recognize that a university education is not a theoretical exercise. If you were to explain an online game like League of Legends to someone, it would be much less effective than helping them play the game – and that is why attendance is so important. Secondly, students are absolutely the most important factor in any classroom – so make sure you bring your personality, interests and unique identity to the classroom and show your classmates and professors who you are. This is the single greatest contribution you can make to your own education. Beyond these two essential factors, a major obstacle faced by students from China is the very different context encountered overseas. In China, the social, cultural and digital landscape is profoundly different.  Professors may use examples in class to explain concepts. For example, on a business studies or computer science degree, we may discuss Amazon, Facebook, Twitter – not, Taobao, WeChat or Weibo. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Youtube, Spotify, Google and Apple Music are the digital spaces we spend our downtime, and staying with the Chinese bubble of iQiyi, Xiami, QQ音乐, Youku, Bilibili and Baidu will limit your exposure to the trends, fashions and issues that help form both understanding of your adopted country and friendships with people from outside China. In this regard, any and all activities you engage in which help you become a fluent communicator in and across different cultures can be viewed as part of your university education, whether that’s researching for an essay, participating in a student society, or attending concerts or sports events.  Travelling to new places, socializing, attending guest lectures - even watching a documentary or film on Netflix late at night can be a form of learning without studying. As long as you are aware of the value of such activities, nothing you do is a waste of time. The trick, as with so many aspects of modern life, is to balance your academic commitments with any other activities – and make sure you bring those other experiences into the classroom wherever possible.
            Over the years, I’ve discussed with colleagues about the most significant challenges they faced when travelling overseas for study. One recurring aspect mentioned in conversation with friends from China, many who have studied overseas at undergraduate, Masters and/or PhD level, is that other countries can feel very cold and unwelcoming on arrival. No one will likely meet you at the airport, there will be few activities organized in your first few days.  This can appear unfriendly, but is attributable to a greater value of private space. This is also another reason that extracurricular activities are so important – if you are happy to stay in your dorm 24/7, then this is exactly what will happen. The same colleagues and friends from China, many who have lived and worked overseas for a long time, also discuss the other side of the coin: that the friendships formed can be lifelong and real and the freedom from obligations allows for much more control over leisure time and work-life balance.
            A final piece of advice relates to my own experiences teaching students from China in the UK and US education systems over the last decade, including at NYU Shanghai and Xi’an jiaotong Liverpool University, St Andrews University and now at Coventry University.  This includes students who performed very well in high school, and those who did not – from Gaokao Tier 1 to Tier 4 students.  It is vital that students recognize that past performance is no reliable indicator of future success and that, once admitted to university, that academic record makes little difference. Some of the best students I have taught arrived in my classroom after a difficult experience in high school. Many, regardless of academic record, are affected by self-doubt and low confidence. Yet many of these same students have excelled, largely down to their own initiative and recognition of the true meaning of a university education: as a voyage of self-discovery where your true goal is to find good answers to the several deeper questions. Who am I? What contribution do I want to make? What path do I wish to take in life? Trying to answer these questions is the true purpose of a university education, and by simply putting these at the heart of the academic journey, students can not only open the doors to new experiences at university, but shape their personal and professional lives well beyond graduation.
Mike Gow is a Lecturer in International Business at Coventry University’s School of Strategy and Leadership.  He previously held posts at NYU Shanghai and Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University after completing his doctorate at the University of Bristol.