MOE: No Longer Pushing the Quantity of Inbound International Students

With 500,000 international students in 2019, China has become the 3rd largest study destination in the world, taking 8% of internationally mobilized students, only behind the US (22%) and the UK (11%). China has had a consistent 5% annual growth on international student numbers for close to two decades.

Like many other “KPIs” in the administrative system, China has been using the word “quantity” to conduct an internationalization movement in its university campuses since 2003. In order to attract more inbound international students to China, the nation has heavily invested in scholarships and promotion, deploying all its overseas media, embassies, consultants, and Confucius Institutes. Some universities even come up with the creative idea of offering “companionships” to international students. Despite the original purpose, most of the companionships appear to match Chinese female students with male international students. In some cases, the Chinese students felt they were obligated to satisfy unreasonable requests from their international “partners”, which caused public outrage. 

The Chinese public has also witnessed video footage of international students’ abusive behavior (or what claims to be) toward local traffic policemen and medical staff; knowing these students not only take advantage of the country’s education budget but also act “superiorly” certainly breeds a bitter taste. Meanwhile, the African students in Guangzhou, alongside a large African community in the same city, have been experiencing discriminatively imposed quarantine. Interviews of African students evicted from their homes and stranded on the streets of Chinese cities went viral internationally. The MOE issued an official notice in May asking universities to enhance an “allyship” with its international students, working on establishing positive paragons and spreading “positive messages” to society.

Since MOE’s 2003 “Study In China” plan, China’s international students’ intake policy has been guided by the objective of “expand the scale and warrantee the quality”. However, in reality, the scale has overtaken the quality, as universities quickly found out it’s not possible to have both. Under the urge of “building world-class Chinese universities”, increasing the percentage of international student populations became a quick way to tick a few boxes and help the university ascend in world rankings. Being the few brands known somewhat internationally, China’s top universities didn’t want to miss these opportunities. Having taken advantage of their branding, most of these universities chose to make almost zero barriers for international student entries; even in less prestigious regions such as Yunan province, the local education bureau has announced their ambitious plan of doubling the international students’ numbers in 6 years.

The Chinese language tests, the HSK Level 4 seem to be the only “challenging” requirement of most Chinese universities, which requires a vocabulary of 1,200 characters. For the large proportion of “international students” who are ethnically Chinese, this is all too easy. The Chinese government’s organized recruitment channels are from regions which have larger Chinese ethnical population such as South East Asia; Students from Japan and Korea can also easily meet this requirement as they have been traditionally learning Chinese characters. In addition, many of these “international students” have newly immigrated overseas, barely spent time living abroad, but just enough to obtain a foreign passport to return back to China on these “easy rides” to enter some of the most sought-after universities. A number of Chinese media pointed out that this type of discrimination has jeopardized quality domestic students’ learning opportunities in exchange for lower academic candidates; the domestic students could be losing an opportunity of a life-time. 

According to MOE’s financial report, it invested RMB4billion (USD570million) to attract international students in 2018; the budget in 2019 was even higher – reaching USD757 million – a 32% increase compared to 2018. Municipal level governments also invested in tens of millions of RMB to ensure they are not losing this race – Beijing invested USD 8million on top of what they have received from the central level in 2019. Ironically, MOE announced a 5% cut to the teachers’ training budget – which was only a quarter of the budget for attracting inbound students, USD140m in total in 2018.

It’s estimated that up to 20% of international students studying in China are receiving some level of scholarship, the remaining 80% are self-funded. The 500,000 students (approx. 50% are studying towards a degree) are also seen as a consumption engine to boost the domestic market. One of the top think tanks in China, Center for China & Globalization(CCG), described the shortfall between the inbound and outbound students in China as a “(trade) deficit”, the Chinese education sector and the local government have been working hard to “balance” this “trade account” through their efforts.

Under this “quantity driven” approach, there is a vacuum in terms of discussions on why China has not become an attractive study destination as it had hoped for. Many things can be not changed easily in China, however, even in these “changeable” fields, administrators are turning a blind eye on the rigid curriculum and teaching style, the “controlled” campus life, and worse yet, the unmentionable racism. While criticism on racism arises globally, China is largely silent on its own discrimination against certain races, religions, and the developing stages of the international students’ home countries, both on-campus and in the job market.

One area which has been doing better than most is a medical study in China. In contrast to other disciplines that are taught and managed in silos by different institutions and departments, the 45 medical programs are taught in English, with a formed committee to facilitate many common issues faced by the providers, including teaching and providing internships at hospitals. At least 2,000 international students are studying medical degree programs in Beijing alone. 

Let’s all wish that the MOE’s “calm down” call can pause the recent years of “great leap forward” on attracting international students to China, and open up to a few possible changes which would be difficult otherwise. This brings a chance for Chinese institutions who are truly interested in making an effort to match international standards in the best way they can to focus on improving their teaching quality and career opportunities rather than focusing on the “short cut” numbers game. Looking beyond establishing “paragons” and spreading “positive messages”, universities can join forces with international students to help break China’s homogenous society and analogous thinking. These opportunities do exist, in classroom debates, in students’ parties, in the neighborhood the students live, in the workforce and every part of Chinese society these students have been mixed with. 


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