Row over ‘easy’ admission for international students

New rules for the admission of foreign students to one of China’s top universities in Beijing has sparked a heated debate in the country over standards being lowered for international students and the perception that Chinese students who have obtained foreign nationality are getting into prestigious institutions by the back door.

The new admissions requirements for foreign nationals at Beijing’s Tsinghua University for undergraduate entry in 2017, first announced late last September when the application season for this year opened, said, unlike previous years, that applicants would not need to take a standardised written academic test.

Overseas students must merely provide national school-leaving exam certificates or their grade-point average together with an academic ranking certification from their high school, with the university setting a minimum cut-off point for selecting good students.

Previously an entrance examination was required for international undergraduate admission and included proficiency in Chinese language.

As Tsinghua clarified the requirements, including the need for separate proof of proficiency in Chinese language, an article entitled “Foreigners can go to top university without examination? Ten years of hard work cannot compete with foreign citizenship” went viral this month on China’s social media platform Sina Weibo.

The article noted that to get into prestigious institutions like Tsinghua University and Peking University, local students in China must not only obtain top scores during high school but also score well in the ferociously competitive gaokao national college entrance exam, which puts students under pressure for several years before even taking the exam.

Out of 9.4 million students who took the exam in 2016, China’s top five universities take just 23,000 new students each year who achieve the highest scores in the gaokao.

Tsinghua University says it will offer admission to around 3,300 undergraduates from the Chinese mainland this year and the number of domestic students will not be affected by international student recruitment, which will be similar in number to previous years.

Currently, around 286 international undergraduates are studying at the university. Around 39 undergraduate degree subjects in 19 schools are open to international applicants to Tsinghua.

Backdoor route

The university has also reportedly reduced the required level in the Chinese proficiency test known as HSK, from level six to level five, which many see as lowering the standard for foreigners.

Netizens are also incensed that the new rules may provide an easier backdoor route for Chinese students whose families emigrated abroad and obtained foreign passports.

“Want to go to Tsinghua and Peking universities? Please emigrate to Equatorial Guinea or Eritrea first, spending millions to get a passport from the middle of nowhere, then you can go to Tsinghua and Peking University without taking tests,” a netizen writing under the name Rangkazhafeiafei said on Sina Weibo last October.

Another, named XieKG, said, “as long as you are rich and can get a Green Card (permanent residency abroad) you can go directly to Tsinghua. It’s even easier than getting a concert ticket.”

Tsinghua University has clarified that overseas applicants should have lived abroad for at least two years out of four before April in the year they are admitted and insists the new rules do not lower standards for international applicants.

"In recent years, increasing numbers of international students want to study at Tsinghua. With the new policy, we have actually expanded the scope of applications, thus making the process more competitive than before," the official Communist Party organ People’s Daily quoted an admissions official at the university as saying.

‘Global influence’

Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, Beijing, said the percentage of international students is an important measure of a university's global influence.

"Currently, foreigners account for only 5.8% of Tsinghua students, which is lower than the 20% figure at universities such as Oxford and Harvard," he said, adding it was clear Tsinghua cannot select foreign students in the same way it selects Chinese students.

Foreign students come from many different backgrounds and school systems, and a standardised test may not be appropriate, Tsinghua officials say. Many overseas students pay high fees to study in China.

However, Xiong noted the way to attract foreign students was to improve the quality of education at Chinese universities rather than lowering admissions requirements.

An unnamed Chinese Canadian student whose family emigrated when she was two years old, but who has returned to study at Tsinghua was quoted by the semi-official Global Times newspaper as saying, “many of my friends at Tsinghua have degrees from prestigious universities in the West. An additional degree from Tsinghua or Peking University may not add a huge benefit to our job hunting or resumé.”

She added she turned down offers from the University of Hong Kong and the London School of Economics to come to Tsinghua. “Studying at Chinese universities is a way to integrate into local society better,” she said.

Other foreign students said the admissions policy for international students was a completely separate issue from the fierce competition for local students aiming for Tsinghua University, which would continue to be competitive whether or not there are foreign students at the university.

According to the Ministry of Education, some 400,000 foreign students were studying in China in 2015, but many were enrolled in short courses. The government has tried to attract more foreign students to four-year degree courses by offering generous scholarships – another sensitive issue for local students who believe scholarship funds are being diverted to students from wealthy countries.