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CHINA
Foreign students are part of ‘soft power’, but targets are ambitious
Peking University’s Zhong Guanxinyuan Global Village Building No 6 opened three years ago offering “perfect facilities” for international students. The air-conditioned accommodation, with soft beds and TV in every room, was a far cry from the shabby, four-person dorms with wooden slat beds that local students put up with.

Peking University students – among the country’s brightest – complained of favouritism towards foreign students. Many said they would be willing to pay more money to have better rooms.

But the contrast between local and foreign student accommodation also served to show how much China is willing to invest to bring foreign students to its shores.

China has been wooing foreign universities and foreign students in a bid to internationalise its universities and as part of a ‘soft power’ policy to project itself internationally.

“China wants to be seen as a major player internationally in terms of education,” said Anthony Welch, a professor of international education at the University of Sydney.

“There is a clear national policy in China of ‘soft power’ using education. I would argue that is a good thing for all partners,” said Yang Rui, an assistant professor in Hong Kong University’s faculty of education.

However, Yang and others note that implementation is still patchy and the number of foreign students is not always as high as education officials would like.

“There is a lot of rhetoric institutionally, regionally and nationally in China but at an institutional level that policy is rarely well implemented,” Yang told University World News.

Ambitious target

Part of the problem is the very ambitious target of attracting some 500,000 foreign students by 2020 – 150,000 of them in higher education – as part of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development 2010-2020.

According to a report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Counting the Cost: Financing Asian higher education for inclusive growth, published earlier this year, China currently enrols more than 240,000 international students, an almost six-fold increase over 1998 and around 40 times more than in 1988, when the country was first opening up to the outside world.

However, the ADB notes that the majority of foreign students in China are in non-degree courses, mainly in language and cultural programmes. Only a third of the total are enrolled in university degree courses, although the proportion is growing.

“For China, the dilemma is that they cannot encourage the best students from abroad to enrol in degree courses,” Welch told University World News.

“The number of foreign students is now around 120,000 but a lot of these are on short courses. It is more like 48,000 in regular university programmes – even so that is substantial,” Welch said.

The ministry’s own figures, released in February, claim that around 60% of foreign students were in short-term and non-degree courses in 2011 and 40% in longer degree courses.

Financial inducements

Experts say that without significant financial inducements in the form of scholarships and funds to universities to help them attract foreign students, it will be difficult for China to achieve its ambitious targets.

This has made attracting foreign students an expensive endeavour, as the government offers financial incentives – particularly in terms of building costs for foreign universities to set up joint facilities with local universities as a way of bring in more foreign students.

It must also compete with other countries in the region. Taiwan plans to increase the number of foreign students from 40,000 now to 100,000 in 2015 and 150,000 by 2020.

Malaysia wants 150,000 international students by 2015, rising to 200,000 by 2020 – more than double the current 93,000. Singapore wants 150,000 foreign students by 2015 compared to just over 90,000 now.

Even with greater student mobility internationally and within Asia, these numbers combined are large, and countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia are seen as offering quality degrees, including through foreign branch campuses or external British, Australian or US degrees.

So China is stepping up its incentives, including scholarships for students even from rich countries, and funding for international programmes at second-tier universities.

Students from the West

“We want to attract more students from European countries as well as the United States by teaching in English,” said Li Dan of the office for international academic exchanges at Nankai University in Tianjin.

Others offer business administration and management courses taught in English, which can also attract higher tuition fees both from local and international students.

A recent Peking University research project cited by the ADB estimated that direct earnings excluding accommodation, maintenance and transport, from long-term international students were between US$960 million and US$1.16 billion in 2011. A further US$90 million was earned from short-term students.

But it is not just about money. “It is a kind of bridge-building exercise and has the potential, if some of the technicalities can be sorted out, of increasing people-to-people contact,” said Welch.

In particular, China is keen to show that it has arrived as an ‘education power’ by attracting students from the most prestigious institutions in the West, and to show that its own top universities can compare with the best in the rest of the world.

To this end, funding was provided to set up summer schools at Peking University, which is running one-month courses in July and August in collaboration with the London School of Economics, Oxford, Cambridge, Australian National University, the University of California and, until this year, Yale.

This allows China to say its leading universities attract students from some of the world’s top institutions.

In another high profile move, Stanford University announced a new research centre in Beijing “as a new platform for Peking University and Stanford to further student exchanges, scholar visits and other cooperation,” said Peking University President Zhou Qifeng at the opening ceremony in March.

Programme setbacks

But it has not been plain sailing.

Yale University decided in July that it would not continue sending undergraduates to live and study in Beijing under the Peking University-Yale University Joint Undergraduate Programme.

In July, a Yale College dean, Mary Miller, said only four students had signed up for the next semester in October compared to an expected 15 students per semester when the project was initiated in 2008, according to Yale Daily News.

China has had to expand resources to attract students from the US. In 2010, it launched a project with the US government “which plans to sponsor 100,000 US students coming to China for either short-term study or for a masters programme by 2012,” Zhang Xiuqin, director of the ministry’s department of international cooperation and exchange, was quoted in official media as saying.

Some 20,000 students from America are studying in China and the number has increased by around 18% compared to last year, said Zhang. She said in April that one in 10 of them, including postgraduate students, had received funding from the ministry.

Students from Asia

However, the Americas and Europe account for only a quarter of foreign students going to China. Two-thirds are from Asia, particularly South Korea and Japan.

According to Hong Kong University’s Yang, “perhaps the US has dominated China’s policy too much and now it needs to reach out to Asia”.

This has already begun to happen. “Within the last 10 to 15 years, China has become more influential in Asia and has increased the number of scholarships to South East Asian students dramatically as part of its politics of ‘soft power’,” Yang said.

He believes more autonomy for regional universities may work better in order to build ties with nearby Asian countries. “Provinces like Guanxi and Yunnan share a similar development and lifestyle to neighbouring South East Asian countries,” he said.

The provinces are already reporting increased funding. “The government is very active. It wants to increase the money to attract more international students,” said Zhao Yanzhe, dean and director of the International Education Centre at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian.

“Every province has a target of how many international students to attract to the province and, according to that target, funds are distributed to each province and there are discussions [with the ministry] on how they can attract international students. Last year there was a 30% increase,” Zhao told University World News in March.

Increased scholarships

According to the Education Ministry, some 25,687 international students were studying in China under the government’s scholarship programme in 2011, an increase of nearly 15% compared to 2010.

In April the ministry announced another increase in the number of scholarships for international students this year, investing at least 1.5 billion yuan (US$238 million) during 2012-13. The ministry said it would also raise the average scholarship from 50,000 yuan to 60,000 yuan and increase the number of students that benefit.

“China uses a range of strategies including scholarships, especially for the developing world. Thousands of scholarships go to students from Asia and Africa,” said Welch.

Whether this will be effective in pushing up the numbers in a short space of time to meet the 2020 targets is still being debated.

There is “a sense of urgency in China”, according to Welch. “But as with so many things in China, the expansion [in foreign student numbers] is happening at such a speed I’m not sure all of it has been thought through.”

Whether or not targets are met, the trend is already clear. Foreign student “enrolments and income are each set to rise significantly”, according to the ADB.

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