In a restaurant in the backstreets of Beijing, 12 Pakistanis and Afghans studying at the China University of Communications tell scary stories of their arrival in China. But any ill feeling about those early days has long since dissipated. They agree that apart from some taxi drivers, the Chinese are very helpful. Friendly relations between their countries and China mean they are welcomed as brothers. Most important, they are all on full scholarships — free tuition, free accommodation and a stipend of 3,000 yuan (Rs.31,514) a month, more than three times Pakistan’s GDP per person. Beijing’s many Xinjiang restaurants serving halal food are a big plus.
There are nearly 500,000 foreign students in China, about 50 percent of whom are on degree programmes. South Koreans are the most numerous. They often come to China if they cannot get into good universities at home — unlike Americans, who come out of cultural and political curiosity, and because it looks good on their CVs. But the share of students from the developing world is growing fast, especially from dozens of countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan that have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure-building project. Overall numbers of foreign students grew fourfold in 2004-16; student numbers from BRI-related countries expanded eightfold.
In countries such as Britain, Australia and America, foreign students are welcomed mostly because universities can make more money out of them than out of locals. For many of the foreign students, a cheap foreign degree is the main attraction. Several of the Pakistanis tried, but failed, to get European, North American and Australian scholarships; getting a degree at home would be much costlier than the one the Chinese are offering. And the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a huge BRI-related project in Pakistan, means that jobs are plentiful for those with knowledge of Mandarin.
For many students, language is a problem. Some universities have created English-medium courses — Richard Coward of China Admissions, a firm that helps students find university places, knows of 2,000 such programmes — but most students have to use Chinese and few speak it well. That is difficult for teachers. “The government and universities don’t want the foreigners to fail, but as the number has increased, the quality has fallen,” says Shuiyun Liu of Beijing Normal University.
Foreign students have reservations, too, says Ms Liu, who has researched foreigners’ satisfaction with teaching in China. “The rules are all hidden here,” she says. And the relationship between teacher and pupils is different. “There’s not much critical thinking. Students are not always encouraged to challenge the teachers.” Learning in China can also be an endurance test. Lectures commonly go on for three to four hours, with only a ten-minute break.
That said, students from developing countries tend to be more enthusiastic than students from the West. “The culture is amazing,” says Ugochukwu Izundu, a Nigerian who did a Masters degree in data analysis at the Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in the eastern city of Suzhou. “I believe China is a force for good in the world,” says Goodwill Mataranyika, a Zimbabwean at Shijiazhuang Tiedao University in Hebei, a northern province. “The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic corridor for mutual benefit, and China is also investing in Africa for a shared win-win benefit for all nations.” (Nigeria and Zimbabwe are signatories to BRI.)
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist and Times Higher Education)