Neither the Covid-19 nor the escalating political tensions with the West have lessened China’s thirst for Western education. While Australia’s restrictive border policies have led to a drop in Chinese enrollments, Chinese students continue to come to the UK for higher education, with the number doubling since 2017.
However, Western universities should be careful not to assume that this thirst can be indefinitely treatable. Although the voyages of these sea turtles, as they are sometimes called in their countries, are always considered necessary for the development of China, this may not always be the case. Under these circumstances, unless their expectations are better monitored and met, they may choose to stay at home, with serious consequences for the bottom line of Western universities – not to mention their global influence.
Many of these sea turtles come to the UK with a stronger shell and stronger language skills. However, many still arrive with flaws in their flow. A considerable number of them embark on pre-sessional courses. But while there are immense benefits to such preparation, they must extend beyond their current effective tenure as giant remedial programs aimed at helping as many students as possible achieve the required score. the language test to guarantee automatic entry to the diploma.
My workplace, for example, incorporates discipline-specific themes into student language assessments. However, that is not enough either. This tailor-made teaching and assessment should be extended to the actual study programs of the students.
This is all part of the acclimatization of Chinese students to their new academic environment. Sending them to a UK degree program with only a reasonable IELTS score is like asking someone to swim the English Channel with just a high school swimming certificate.
For most Chinese students, achieving cultural and academic literacy in their new environment is as great a challenge as mastering the language. But without this literacy, it is very difficult for them to orient themselves in a Western course, many of the conventions of which are very different from the Chinese context. Faced with such a shipwreck or swimming situation, many sea turtles struggle naturally.
Before the pandemic, many of us in education, almost unknowingly, had ideas rooted in a conservative mindset. Today we seem to be entering a world where there is more talk of compassion, social justice, co-creation and decolonization of the curriculum. Many of these ideas, however, appear to be primarily applicable to the home student context.
How many universities have honestly conceptualized international students as part of BAME communities? What consideration has been given to the impact of colonialism on the Chinese psyche today? If assessment is to be decolonized for black British students, why are the same principles not applied to Chinese students, creating a margin in the criteria for students to obtain grades for adaptation or application of their learning styles to the western context.
As the wave of change sweeps through higher education, Chinese students can no longer be treated as a cohesive block. As an educator of English teachers and a course leader, I despair in front of colleagues who describe their group as “Abdul from Bahrain, Marco from Italy, Celine from France, Vee from Thailand and seven Chinese”. I can only imagine the variations of this mindset that can be found in other university departments.
Additionally, as we co-create more and more content with students, validating and valuing their views, we need to do the same when it comes to alternative learning styles. And while some educators may see this as too much of a contradiction, there are ways of working with Chinese students who meet in the middle.
Western-style critical thinking is about taking knowledge and applying our individual interpretation of it. East Asian learners generally look at the world from a more Confucian perspective, seeking binary answers rather than shades of gray. The Confucian approach is moreover more communal. It examines a body of knowledge or historical precedent and examines how this might be applied to the new situation. In other words, Confucian thinkers seek to apply the learning rather than to analyze it.
This may lead them to view Western-style criticality as just a technique for passing exams. This could in part be overcome by applying it to specific Chinese contexts. An example could be the advancement of Chinese transportation, where China seems to have looked at what Japan was doing with its high-speed trains and created its own maglev versions. My experience is that such efforts to make homework more relevant to them are greatly appreciated by students.
Of course, the Chinese government is hostile to the application of critical thinking to certain topics, but there are ways to approach this. I’ve seen classes and discussions on LGBT issues, for example, which then prompted Chinese students to ask questions about other taboo topics, such as Hong Kong, Tibet, and media censorship.
These topics are particularly sensitive given the growing tensions between China and the West, of course. But creating pedagogies that allow Western universities to work in sync with Chinese students might even spur a new policy of mutual benefit. This could create a situation where the Chinese government sees an opening of minds that is beneficial rather than threatening: an abandonment of absolutist thinking.
It is certainly a more promising route for better mutual relations than sending warships to the East China Sea.
Paul Breen is Senior Lecturer at the Center for Education, Teaching and Innovation at the University of Westminster. He is the author of several books relating to international education and teacher training.