Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

26 Sep, 2014

International students eye China, not just for language this time

Beijing, (Global Times), September 23, 2014 – On August 25, 24-year-old American Chris Campbell landed in Beijing, excited, looking forward to life as an international student here. But he was also well aware that he would face six to eight hours of classes each day, with another four to five hours of preparation as well.

Originally from a small town, he always had a clear career plan, so the senior student at University of South Carolina made the decision to come to one of China’s top universities, Tsinghua University, to study Chinese law. “In America there are so many lawyers and I wanted to find a way to stand out from my peers. And, not so many people know about Chinese law.”

China is seeing a growing number of international students who are convinced that this study experience will increase their value on the job market. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Education, there were more than 356,000 students in 2013 from 200 countries and regions studying at China’s 746 universities, research institutions and other teaching institutions, 8.6 percent more than in 2012.

Driven by a knowledge-based economy and demand for highly skilled human resources, students choosing to study abroad increased from 1.3 million in 1990 to 4.3 million in 2011 around the world, according to UNESCO statistics. Traditional destinations for overseas education in East Asia and the Pacific like Australia and Japan are facing increased competition from newcomers including China. China has the largest number of students going abroad for study, and now it is also among the top destination countries. China ranks at ninth place with 2 percent of all mobile students worldwide studying there, with the top three being the US, UK and France.

Beyond language study

Campbell made decisions about his career according to the principle that “There’s no business without law. No business without China.”

“You have to be able to work with China. In order to be successful in business in the future, you have to include China.” Upon graduation, Campbell intends to get a position in an American law firm, which will hopefully station him somewhere in China. “There are a lot of opportunities, a lot of money to be made and a lot of people to meet here.”

Before and after he made the decision, Campbell did his research about other American lawyers who studied in China, and found that “many of them find good jobs and are paid well, aside from the fact that in general it’s very hard for lawyers to find a job in America.”

Another important factor that helped Campbell make up his mind was money. “Because of the living expenses, the tuition and the scholarship I got here, I am saving 10,000 dollars just by coming here.”

“I think a lot of international students see China as a land of opportunity and potential,” he concluded.

Thierry Titcheu, 26, came from Cameroon to the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui Province, six years ago to study software engineering. He is now studying a Masters program at Tsinghua University and will graduate next July.

Drawn to China by its kung fu movies, Titcheu now has more practical things to think about. The hardest part was the fierce competition he went through trying to get the opportunity to come here and receive a scholarship, along with the language barrier – all his courses are in Chinese. But now he feels his efforts will pay off, because he has found that many Chinese companies are willing to hire foreigners.

He has just started an internship writing computer programs for Alipay, the online payment service of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. “Finding good jobs depends on the university. The experience is also important,” he said.

Titcheu is feeling confident as graduation draws near, and is glad he chose a major that was not the Chinese language. “Tsinghua is the best in China, and among the top [in software engineering] in the world … Foreigners are here for all types of majors. I think Chinese language has maybe the most.”

Compared to the past, more and more international students like Campbell and Titcheu have taken an interest in a wider variety of majors than language skills.

In 2013, there were 147,890 international students who received academic education, accounting for 41 percent of the total number. Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Development Research Institute, said that compared to the past, there are more students from Western countries studying academic degrees.

In 2013, there was significant growth in the number of students coming from Africa, Europe and Oceania, with increases of 23 percent, 13 percent and 8 percent respectively.

Xiong pointed out that while both the number of foreign students and the variety of courses they are studying are increasing, the majority of them are still studying Chinese or Traditional Chinese Medicine. In addition, most come from Asian countries or attend short-term programs. “This tells us that the Chinese universities are not as competitive as we think in the international education market yet,” he said.

Finding a sweet spot

For many students, diplomas and qualifications are not enough. Work experience in the industry and language skills are the most valued in the international job market.

Shiba Akinori, a 23-year-old Japanese student, is excited about getting his bachelor’s diploma in finance in Shanghai in about six months. He applied for a one-semester extension, mostly due to language difficulties. “The courses are in English and Chinese, so they are quite complicated for me,” he said.

However, Shiba doesn’t think the diploma itself will be helpful for his future career. The fact that he will have actually lived and studied in China will be of far more significance, he said, adding that he has already been offered a job by a Japanese human resources company in Shanghai.

Shiba attributes his success in securing a coveted position before graduation to the fact that he had completed three internships at related positions. “And I think what they value the most are my foreign language skills (Chinese and Japanese).”

Xiong said decisions by foreign students about whether to come to China are based on whether they want to work in China or with Chinese people, and their major. “It’s not for a diploma. A diploma from a Chinese university is not fundamentally valuable for them.”

Lincoln van der Westhuizen, from South Africa, has been studying in China for about one year, majoring in business journalism at a Masters program.

After getting his Bachelor’s in radio journalism, Westhuizen worked as a sports journalist for one year before coming to China. He is eyeing a career in sports marketing, which he thinks is a yet-to-be-thriving industry with a lot of opportunities in China.

“A lot of my friends aren’t necessarily getting visas out of internships, which makes it more difficult,” he said. Westhuizen said that many foreigners he has met chose to take English teaching jobs as it is often difficult to get their dream job and a work visa at the same time immediately after graduation.

According to regulations by the public security authorities, any company which wants to hire foreigners needs to apply to the labor authorities for permits, which the foreigners need in order to apply for work visas. Requirements often include at least two years of work experience, which can be tough for the graduates to get before they study in China.

Foreign students who don’t have the required experience have to consider more than just dealing with the bureaucracy, and the possibility they will have an employer who cannot keep their promises. “Basically I plan to stay here, but it’s getting harder and harder to get visas. So my plan is to come back to South Africa and then come back later,” said Westhuizen.

Challenges and prosperity

According to plans by the Ministry of Education, China aims to become the biggest destination country in Asia for overseas education by 2020, with half a million students studying on the Chinese mainland, among whom 150,000 should be studying for higher education diplomas.

But overall, the number of students studying at Chinese universities isn’t necessarily increasing. Aside from China’s declining numbers of youth, particularly when compared to the number of older citizens, there is also the fact that fewer students are choosing to take the gaokao (college entrance examination).

Numbers of students taking the gaokao have consistently fallen since 2008 with this year being the only exception – there was a 3 percent bump.

But the number of Chinese students studying abroad has increased by nearly 20 percent each year.

“If the universities cannot keep their own students and attract high-quality Chinese students, how can they attract foreign students?” asked Xiong.

In 2013, more than 33,000 international students in China received government scholarships, accounting for 9.35 percent of the international students. This represented an increase of 16 percent.

But Xiong pointed out that the country’s goals cannot be accomplished merely through promotion, expanding enrolment and more scholarships. “Many universities adopt all sorts of methods to increase the so-called size of the international student body, and the internationalization of local schools, including providing more scholarships, lower examination standards and entrance thresholds, but this causes students to be of a lower caliber.”

“The solution should be building a modern higher education system, in line with international standards and allowing our universities to have autonomy so as to fully integrate into international competition within higher education.”