It’s not all rosy for Chinese students: Kindness can help

Chinese students make up the largest cohort of international students in the United Kingdom, with 143,820 studying there in 2020-21. The key factors drawing these students are the UK’s educational resources and economy, English language provision and the perceived boost to their employment potential.

However, studying in the UK is not typically a rosy experience. Chinese international students are often stereotyped as lacking particular skills for success and as ‘cash cows’ for the UK higher education sector, providing valuable fee income to subsidise provision for domestic students and activities such as research.

Barriers related to language, social interaction, psychological adjustment, academic achievement and employment are challenges that Chinese students commonly experience in the UK. Despite paying high tuition fees, they are excluded from key quality indicators, for example, data on graduate employability.

Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic have led to further negative impacts on Chinese students. Their psychological and academic adjustment has been profoundly affected by greater anxiety and stress as well as an upsurge in racism and hate incidents in recent years.

Value for money

There is also a concern among Chinese students that UK degrees are becoming poor value for money. Degree prestige has been diminishing and there is no guarantee that these graduates will find decent jobs in China. For example, the Report on Employment and Entrepreneurship of Chinese Returnees in 2018 reveals that 80% of Chinese returnees’ salaries are far below their expectations.

Chinese students’ increasing expectation of value for money has contributed to multidirectional patterns of international student mobility. They are no longer attracted only to the Global North. They are going to educational hubs in Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East due to their high educational standards, national infrastructure and regional and cultural proximity.

Meanwhile, China has become the world’s third largest destination for international students (behind the United States and the UK). The Chinese government supports international students through the allocation of public funds towards tuition and scholarships. This generous assistance contrasts with practices in some UK universities that focus on the financial benefits of hosting Chinese students.


Our research highlights that it is time for the UK higher education sector to embrace the reality of increased competition and diversity in the global student market. It must improve provision for Chinese students and ensure that all students experience true value, academically and personally, in their degree programmes.

A necessary approach is to understand and respond to Chinese students’ specific concerns about value for money. UK higher education institutions must evidence the strength of their academic programmes and the access they provide to industry connections and work opportunities.

Employability is a key driver for Chinese students, so the UK government and universities would be wise to allocate resources to increase employment prospects for international students and to include them in datasets on graduate employability, especially following masters programmes. These strategies will help demonstrate the value of a UK degree.

A culture of kindness

Another approach is to develop a culture of kindness that values students’ different views and experiences. Kindness here means selfless acts performed by a person wishing to help or positively affect the emotional state (mood) of another. Positive interpersonal interactions grounded in helpfulness, empathy and compassion are the keys to the enactment of kindness.

Teachers’ kind-heartedness is a central value in the Chinese education system. Kindness can be demonstrated by knowing students’ names, treating them as equals and showing an interest in their work and well-being. Kind gestures by academic staff can enhance students’ well-being and learning experiences as well as promote a culture of positive interactions.

Chinese students also associate the idea of kindness with institutional actions that are sensitive to cultural diversity and the different needs of students.

Commonly, Chinese students in the UK experience an academic culture where many staff are unwilling to respond to questions about coursework. While this problem may have its roots in academic staff’s chronic workload pressures, the lack of support and communication is interpreted as unkindness which contributes to the vulnerability the students experience in the UK.

Other institutional provisions that Chinese students perceive as ‘unkind’ include classes that are too big, lack of multicultural social activities and disproportionately high numbers of Chinese students on courses.

A shared project

These arrangements provide little opportunity for Chinese students to interact meaningfully with academic staff and non-Chinese peers. Lack of interaction between domestic students and Chinese students is a persistent issue in UK universities; it is time it was properly addressed.

Developing a culture of kindness is not a straightforward process. It should be a shared project among students and university staff to encourage positive interactions in teaching and learning as well as service support. It should be motivated by care and concern for the learning and well-being of Chinese students and their treatment as equals.

Universities also need to provide staff and students with adequate training to improve intercultural awareness, particularly concerning how different cultures and values can shape students’ learning needs and expectations. With this knowledge, all staff and students will be better equipped to promote truly inclusive and international experiences on campus.

Finally, international student recruitment strategy should prioritise diversity. UK higher education institutions need to seek students from a wider range of countries. In a more internationally diverse student population, there is even more merit in developing multicultural social activities that foster a sense of belonging in all students and improve their learning experience.

Ming Cheng is professor of higher education at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and Dr Olalekan Adekola is a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at York St John University, UK. This is based on Ming Cheng’s keynote at the China and Higher Education 2022: (Re)imagining Kindness in Times of Conflict conference at the University of Manchester which runs until 2 December.