Foreign student scholarships spark anger as fees rise

A new plan to lure foreign students with generous scholarships by China’s eastern Jiangsu province, host to a number of foreign branch campuses, has sparked anger in the province over resources being directed towards “wealthy foreigners” while Chinese students struggle with a rising fee burden.

Resentment has also grown as foreign students are provided with what is seen as far superior accommodation to that available for local students.

In mid-August, the province’s education bureau launched a ‘Study in Jiangsu’ programme to develop the province into a major destination for foreign students. Under the programme, annual scholarships of 50,000 to 90,000 yuan (US$8,200 to US$14,700) will be made available to applicants from overseas wanting to study at universities, including joint overseas ventures such as Duke Kunshan University and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

Another 50 publicly funded universities in Jiangsu, many in the popular student cities of Nanjing and Suzhou are permitted to take foreign students.

Yang Shubing, director of publicity at the Jiangsu education bureau said the province had some 18,700 foreign students by the end of last year. “To encourage more such students, the provincial scholarship total has reached 15 million yuan each year,” he was quoted in official media as saying.

But the plan has sparked outrage, with local residents criticising the scheme on China’s microblog site Weibo, in particular because it was announced at a time when universities in at least nine Chinese provinces were introducing steep tuition fees rises for local students this year.

In some cases fee rises for locals will be as much as 50% compared to last year or even 75%, as was reported for Ningxia Autonomous Region – a poorer region in western China.

Scholarships and grants for local students have not risen in line with these sharp increases, angering students and families, the Shanghai Daily newspaper reported in August.

Fees burden

University tuition fees for local students remained at around 5,000 yuan (US$817) a year since 2006, when the government imposed a five-year moratorium on raising university fees.

Education commentator Bing Qi said 5,000 yuan today was around 18% of urban residents' per capita disposable income and 56% of rural residents’.

“Therefore, tuition fees should be reduced, not increased,” Bing said, adding in a commentary in Beijing Youth Daily that “the burden on households remains high despite rising incomes in recent years”.

Official figures show that in 2013, the overall value of scholarships totalled 57.41 billion yuan (US$9.38 billion) for 2.65 million Chinese students – or around 1500 yuan (US$245) per student.

“Contrast this figure with the sum Jiangsu is prepared to grant foreign students and it does appear that the concern about ‘discrimination’ or ‘double standards’ is not entirely misplaced,” Shanghai Daily commented.

Jiangsu’s “quest for a leading position in the global education landscape was justified only if it did not come at a cost to locals”, the paper added.

Citizens vented their anger online saying if the government had money for education scholarships it should not be spent on ‘foreign elites’ when many students in poor rural areas were unable to afford fees.

Boosting foreign student numbers

Jiangsu is not alone, however: Shanghai is aiming to attract 70,000 foreign students by 2015, up from 40,000 this year and will increase the number of scholarships for those on longer degree programmes.

Some will be worth 200,000 yuan or US$32,700 over four years of study, including accommodation costs – a huge sum compared to loans and grants for local students, even when taking account of the higher accommodation costs for foreigners.

The Beijing government is actively trying to attract more foreign students and has said it will provide scholarships for as many as 50,000 international students by 2015. Some 18,000 scholarships have been made available for students from Africa since 2013.

Although the majority of foreign students in China are currently from the US and South Korea, Liu Jinghui, secretary-general of the China Scholarship Council, has said Chinese higher education would be promoted more strongly in Europe. Liu said he hoped to increase the 1,087 scholarships provided to European students last year.

As the barrage of online criticism against funds being “diverted” to foreign students rose, the China Development Bank last month announced 14 billion yuan of “new loans” for local students this year through the state loan scheme that benefits some 2.5 million students.

The bank said the cap on the loan amount would be increased by 33% to 8,000 yuan (US$1,300), up from 6,000 yuan previously for each undergraduate applicant. Graduate students will receive up to 12,000 yuan.

The increase of 2,000 yuan per undergraduate student is the first such increase since 2002, with official inflation running at an annual rate of 5 to 6% in recent years. Students in some provinces, including Hainan, held protests last year about the rise in fees and other costs, including canteen food.

"The previous [loan] standard was implemented for more than a dozen years, and many students with financial difficulties said it was far from enough," said Zhang Guangming, director of the China National Centre for Student Financial Aid under the Education Ministry.