No country in history has ever expanded its university capacity as fast as the People's Republic of China over the last 20 years. Each year, more programmes become available at more universities for the international student considering studying there. The Chinese university system is markedly tiered and costs can be higher at the most prestigious schools in urban centres, but generally fees and housing are not expensive by Western standards.
Chinese language and culture, medicine, engineering and business are by far the most common courses pursued by foreign students. A major factor is a prospective student's fluency in Chinese although programmes completely in English are available at some schools.
By the mid-1990s, China took advantage of a missing generation caused by the shutdown of schools for a decade during the 'Cultural Revolution' of 1965-75 to reorganise its university system.
The ageing university leadership and professoriate, trained to a USSR-style system, was retiring and younger academics had not risen to positions to resist change. The leadership seized this gap to reorganise universities, closing some weak colleges, merging many and putting others under provincial management.
The new system models the US with assistant, associate and full professors, a four-year bachelors degree and academics evaluated by publications ranked on citation indices.
China adopted English as the second language to be taught nationwide from kindergarten upward. Thus, any foreign student who can speak English will have little difficulty speaking socially with Chinese students on campus.
Admission of Chinese students to their universities is controlled by the 'gao kao' or leaving examination, and the highest-scoring students attend the most prestigious universities and generally are fluent in English. The next tier of universities will have more students honing their English at designated campus corners, and native English-speaking students may still find themselves used for conversational practice.
Of some 2,000 colleges and universities, about one in four admit foreign students. China has designated a top tier of universities for substantial funding and also specified certain institutions as 'key universities' in specific areas of study.
For instance, East China Normal University in Shanghai is a key university in optics and Henan Normal University has a key lab in molecular biology. This status provides more resources to bring in visiting professors and underwrite research teams and masters and doctoral programmes.
But universities and colleges for training elementary teachers or serving minority nationalities lack courses of use to foreign students. New 'university cities' outside Xi'an, Guangdong and Chongqing, with 10 to 30 universities on these mega-campuses, accommodate 100,000 to 300,000 academics, students and supporting staff.
Many of these new universities, however, are narrowly specialised and offer electrical engineering, or language translation, or art. Chinese students must target their career and do not have the leeway to change majors or stay in college for seven years as a 'professional student'. Fortunately the internet allows foreign students to locate those campuses that have programmes in their area of study.
The depth of these will vary, from Jiao Tong University's full executive masters in business administration, offered completely in English with visiting professors from top-ranked Western schools, to shorter programmes not earning a degree and requiring two years study of Chinese (very minimal proficiency).
Many foreign students attend those universities that have exchange arrangements with the student's home institution. Because Western students often have little language study, courses that sample the Chinese language and culture vary from a few weeks of touring to a semester.
This is by far the most common for American students, but some universities have long-standing applied programmes that serve students from other Asian countries, and China is becoming a magnet for more foreign students in the Asian region.
Western students are most likely to enrol in Chinese language and culture, medicine, engineering or business. Tuition fees vary and, disregarding the top tier highly selective schools, currently run from 16,000 to 27,000RMB a year or an average of US$4,500.
Housing also varies widely but is inexpensive by Western standards and a student can usually live on or off campus. For instance, Yunnan Normal University in the beautiful city of Kunming requires several years of prior Chinese language study, offers a short programme but not a full degree and can make arrangements for a student to live with a Chinese family.
The Chinese student dormitories at new campuses now only hold six to eight students to a room, compared with more in the old quarters. But Chinese universities have always housed international students in special dormitories with Western-style accommodations, one or two to a room, winter heating and so on.
Classrooms in the new campuses are modern with state-of-the-art electronics. The library is always the centre of campus and well-stocked with Chinese books and periodicals. The internet facilities are modern but filter inaccurate websites.
Where a Chinese university has a joint degree programme and faculty exchange, Western students may find themselves in a 'home away from home' setting. For instance, Liaoning Normal University and Missouri State University have a joint programme, the only degree that can be completed completely in English at Liaoning Normal, with many instructors coming over from Missouri.
Universities accepting large numbers of foreign students will have an Office of International Education. Key university research programmes may provide student financial support. Foreign students seeking aid can sometimes apply for a scholarship through that office, but just for Chinese studies.
Despite tremendous university growth, China still lacks the capacity to accommodate all of its own qualified students. The country has been a major exporter of students to Western universities (more than 98,000 came to the US alone in 2007-08) and, with the recent economic development, many graduated students have returned to China to work in business, education and government.
These hundreds of thousands of travelled students have allowed modern China to understand the Western world, culture and political systems. In comparison, the numbers of foreign students who study in China continues to be a trickle (only 13,000 US students went to China in 2007-08).
This has resulted in an outside world that does not understand China. The Chinese government acknowledges this so foreigners hoping to study in China will have no problem obtaining a student visa.
* John Richard Schrock is director of biology education at Emporia State University in Kansas and takes classes in China every year.
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