CHINA: Universities face internationalisation dilemma

Just imagine that the US Department of Education announced to the world that it had 3,000 scholarships on offer for study at college level in the United States, open to any applicant with proficient English. The number of applicants from China alone would undoubtedly be in the millions. In fact, just such a highly unlikely offer was made recently, but by the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China.

The Confucius Institute (CI) headquarters announced an offer of 3,000 scholarships for international students to study in China in 2009. The scholarships covered periods ranging from four-week study tours to four-year full-degree university programmes. The international reaction was positive, but not nearly as enthusiastic as the likely Chinese reaction to a similar US offer.


Many Chinese universities are keen to be more international. Most universities in China have an administrative office for international cooperation or foreign affairs, which is equivalent to an international office in Western universities.

In addition, most Chinese universities take pride in establishing links with universities around the world and boast of their international academic exchanges. Most also have departments or schools or colleges of international studies, offering degree and non-degree programmes in Chinese language and culture, and recruit students internationally into departments other than Chinese, such as Chinese medicine.

So China would consider its universities to be 'internationalised'. Internationalisation generally includes the standardisation of goals and content of education; the administration and management of educational institutions in terms of internationally accepted criteria; and international cooperation, communications and exchanges.

Many Chinese universities also point to the number of sister universities they have abroad and the number and frequency of mutual visits and exchanges as well as the number of international students enrolled as signs of their 'internationalisation'.

In the past 30 years, educational reform in Chinese universities has changed the profile of Chinese higher education. The quality of education is now to some degree in line with internationally accepted standards. In many areas, Chinese universities perform better than most universities around the world.

However, the relatively cool reaction towards the Confucius Institute scholarships reveals an important defect in the so-called 'internationalisation' of Chinese universities.

The main obstacle is language. It will take a few more years before CIs around the world are able to provide international students with adequate Chinese to do academic studies in China.

It is true that in recent years officials in the Ministry of Education have encouraged Chinese universities to offer some courses in bilingual form or in English only. Some universities have even established departments or schools that offer courses in English. Such moves often attract criticism in China by those keen to defend the Chinese language.

At the Confucius Institute at Rhodes University in South Africa, we conducted a small survey of 14 of the top students in our Chinese class, asking them about their attitudes to and their perceptions of the CI scholarships.

Half the students expressed interest in the scholarships. However, only one student actually applied for a scholarship and he eventually had to drop his application because he could not get approval from his department at Rhodes University for a credit transfer. This was because there was no equivalent major course offered in English in the target Chinese university, although there were equivalent or near equivalent courses offered in Chinese.

The scholarship student candidate was, however, still a long way from being able to take a course in Chinese. Although this Chinese university did have an international school that offered major courses in English, his major was unfortunately not on the list. He could not afford to delay graduation and all the extra expenses this might entail by taking a semester out of his major course.

The other six students who did indicate an interest in the CI scholarships and the seven students who did not express an interest did not apply for similar reasons. Another reason was that they did not want to take Chinese as a major subject, although they did want to learn Chinese up to a certain level of proficiency. Their decision was not a political one, but a very practical one.

One student in another subject area at the institute did apply for a scholarship. She is an international student in South Africa and did get approval from her department for credit transfer back from the Chinese university. She is a drama student, and her department accepts credits for taking courses that are not equivalent to Rhodes University courses.

We believe that Chinese universities need to be able to cope with the needs of international students taking non-language courses in English. Even in universities in France and Germany, where teaching in English is unpopular, higher education institutions offer courses in English to cater to the needs of international students. Whether you like it or not, English is the international language of higher education and academic discourse. The process of internationalisation at Chinese universities cannot ignore this.

In China, children are exposed to English at a much earlier age and in a much more intensive way than students in Confucius Institutes are exposed to Chinese. It would be much easier for Chinese universities to offer courses in English than to request international students to learn in Chinese.

This does not mean all courses have to be taught in English, but some courses should so that international students can benefit from experiencing the Chinese education system. It would allow international students both to pursue the study of Chinese language and culture while keeping up with their own fields of academic study.

The Chinese higher education system faces a dilemma. On the one hand, it wants to attract international students to study and do research in China and so enrich Chinese academic life and in turn be enriched by Chinese culture; on the other hand, it needs to keep Chinese universities 'Chinese', that is, attractive to Chinese students.

Dilemmas do not have simple solutions. In order to make the Confucius Institute scholarship initiative (and, importantly, the worldwide institutes) successful and effective, Chinese universities will have to make some creative and complex changes.

* Professor Yue Ma is Chinese Director and Professor Marius Vermaak is Director of the Confucius Institute at Rhodes University in South Africa.

The suggestion of offering English classes in Chinese universities and colleges will never happen, simply because this idea is too reasonable, logical, and sensible. China would never do anything like that.

Kai Pan