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Why has China become an international student hub?
Episode 524th January 2023 • Borders & Belonging • Toronto Metropolitan University and openDemocracy
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For years, many students from China sought to further their studies in countries like the US or the UK. But in the past decade or so, China has itself become a hub for international students. In this episode, two leading researchers will shed light on this phenomenon, and help us understand how and why China has become such a popular destination for students globally.

Hear what it's like to be a foreign student in China from Aya, who fled the war in Syria with her family and sought refuge in China when she was only 13 years old. Then host Maggie Prezyna speaks with experts Obert Hodzi (University of Liverpool) and Ben Mulvey (University of Glasgow) about the advantages and challenges of studying in China.

Maggie is a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration & Integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University and this new podcast is Borders & Belonging. Maggie will talk to leading experts from around the world and people with on-the-ground experience to explore the individual experiences of migrants: the difficult decisions and many challenges they face on their journeys.

She and her guests will also think through the global dimensions of migrants’ movement: the national policies, international agreements, trends of war, climate change, employment and more.

Borders & Belonging brings together hard evidence with stories of human experience to kindle new thinking in advocacy, policy and research.

Top researchers contribute articles that complement each podcast with a deeper dive into the themes discussed.

Borders & Belonging is a co-production between the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration & Integration at Toronto Metropolitan University and openDemocracy. The podcast was produced by LEAD Podcasting, Toronto, Ontario.

Show notes

Below, you will find links to all of the research referenced by our guests, as well as other resources you may find useful.

Donate or get involved!

China International Student Union, Twitter.

Media

China gears up for return of international students’, by Mimi Leung, University World News (24 August 2022).

Coronavirus forces foreign students in China to choose: Stay or go’, by Alexandra Stevenson, The New York Times (12 February 2020).

The discourse of international student mobility between China and Africa’, by Benjamin Mulvey, Youtube (16 February 2021).

The end of China’s non-intervention policy in Africa’, with guest Obert Hodzi on the China in Africa Podcast (28 October 2018).

Increasing number of Africans preferring to study in China’, by Zou Shuo, China Daily (10 November 2021).

Meet the Author - Interview with Ben Mulvey’, on Podcasts by Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities (May 2020).

What is China’s Belt and Road Initiative?’, by Lily Kuo and Niko Kommenda, The Guardian (30 July 2018).

What is FOCAC? Three historic stages in the China-Africa relationship’, by Shirley Ze Yu, London School of Economics (3 February 2022).

Research projects & policy

China's Belt and Road Initiative in the Global Trade, Investment and Finance Landscape’, OECD (2018).

Forum on China Africa Cooperation’, Website.

Project 9: Mapping supranational higher education space’, The Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, with support from Research England (2020-2023).

Books

Dervin, F., Du, X., & Härkönen, A. (Eds.). (2018). ‘International students in China: Education, student life and intercultural encounters’. Springer.

Hodzi, O. (2019). ‘The end of China's non-intervention policy in Africa’. Palgrave Macmillan.

Tian, M., Dervin, F., & Lu, G. (Eds.). (2020). ‘Academic experiences of international students in Chinese higher education’. Routledge.

Academic works

Amoah, P. A., Hodzi, O., & Castillo, R. (2020). ‘Africans in China and Chinese in Africa: inequalities, social identities, and wellbeing’. Asian Ethnicity.

Hodzi, O. (2020). ‘Bridging the asymmetries? African students’ mobility to China’. Asian Ethnicity.

Mulvey, B. (2021). ‘Conceptualizing the discourse of student mobility between “periphery” and “semi-periphery”: The case of Africa and China’. Higher Education.

Mulvey, B. (2021). ‘“Decentring” international student mobility: The case of African student migrants in China’. Population, Space and Place.

Mulvey, B. (2020). ‘International higher education and public diplomacy: A case study of Ugandan graduates from Chinese universities’. Higher Education Policy.

Mulvey, B., & Lo, W. Y. W. (2021). ‘Learning to ‘tell China's story well’: The constructions of international students in Chinese higher education policy’. Globalisation, Societies and Education.

Transcript

Magdalena Perzyna

Welcome to Borders & Belonging, a podcast that explores issues in global migration, and aims to debunk myths about migration, based on current research. This series is produced by CERC Migration and openDemocracy. I'm Maggie Perzyna, a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University. Today's episode is about a new trend in international education. For years, many students from China sought to further their studies in countries like the US or the UK, but in the past decade or so, China has itself become a hub for international students. In this episode, two leading researchers will shed light on this phenomenon, and help us understand how and why China has become such a popular destination for students globally. But first, we'll speak to someone who has, herself, studied in China.

Being the new kid at school is hard. But being the new kid at school in a new country is just a little more challenging.

Aya

I was introduced into the classroom by my teacher. And everybody was like, shushing and like whispering and they were pointing at me [laughing], and, you know, it's like cool… [uneasy]!

Magdalena Perzyna

That's Aya. I will just be using her first name out of respect for her privacy. In 2012, she and her family fled the war in Syria and sought refuge in China. Aya was only 13 years old and like most kids, she just wanted to fit in. While the teachers at her public school went out of their way to help her feel welcome, Aya still found it challenging to settle into her new environment

Aya

It did hurt a bit when I didn't know any of the things the other kids were talking about or playing. And for me, the double struggle was that my parents were very proud of their own heritage. They didn't really want us to assimilate to Chinese culture either and while as a kid, all you want to do is to be a part of something, to be like the other kids. So that was definitely very hard. And that struggle would only be intensified by the years.

Magdalena Perzyna

Aya only spoke Arabic when she arrived in China. So, she worked diligently to become fluent in Mandarin. But she soon came to learn that even that wasn't enough.

Aya

There is an expectation that all foreigners speak English very well. So, if you are from a non-English speaking country and you don't speak English very well, that's very hard for you, because it's like, how do I communicate with the public? And that's actually one of the pressures that I faced because I didn't speak any English when I moved to China. And that's also why I put in a lot of work and taught myself English.

Magdalena Perzyna

The circumstances that led Aya to study in China are not typical of most international students in the country. But after studying with other newcomers in high school, Aya realized that she wasn't alone in a lot of her experiences. For one, she and the other international students found that academic expectations were much more intense in China, than they are in most parts of the world.

Aya

The schools will have mandatory evening self-study sessions, where teachers will give out extra assignments or tests for students to complete within that timeframe. Those usually end around 8 or 9pm. And if you're a specialized arts student, then on top of all of that you will have your sketching or art sessions until 11pm. Now that, you know, now you think that a student would just go home and sleep after all this, but they'd still have additional homework to complete on top of that. That's why most students are left with no choice but to stay up late at night.

Magdalena Perzyna

Aya was grateful to be able to commiserate about this, and about identity with her fellow international students.

Aya

You know, I found a home with these people. These people became family to me, and they still are family to me, because we supported each other, in you know, a foreign country and we listened to each other.

Magdalena Perzyna

And while Aya will perhaps never feel completely at home in China, there's no denying that having studied there will forever be a part of who she is and contribute to the new identity she is building in her new home.

Aya

I identify as Syrian, I identify as Chinese, I identify as Canadian now that I'm here because I've, I'm living here now, and this is where I'm trying to build a home for myself. So, of course, I will, you know, try my best to be a part of this place. And I think that will forever be the case wherever you go.

Magdalena Perzyna

Aya moved to Canada in 2021 to study at Toronto Metropolitan University. She is now in her second year of a Bachelor's in Sociology. Many thanks to her for sharing her story. Now we're going to look a little closer at China's growth as an international student hub. Joining me is Dr. Obert Hodzi, an international relations scholar focusing on international politics at the University of Liverpool, and Dr. Ben Mulvey, a lecturer in politics at the University of Glasgow. Thank you both for being here! Western countries often see China as a market to draw international students from, but now the country is becoming a hub for international students. Where is China attracting students from? Obert, let's start with you.

Dr. Obert Hodzi

China is getting most of its students from Asian countries, neighboring countries, countries like India, for instance, countries like Pakistan, countries like Vietnam. Those are countries where the majority of international students studying in China are coming from. But over the past maybe 4 or 5 years, or even more, more African students have been looking at China as a studying destination. So actually, China has overtaken the UK, the US to become the most preferred destination for African students. So, it's mostly from Asian countries. And then secondly, from African students, those are the biggest groups.

Magdalena Perzyna

What are the benefits of studying in China?

Dr. Obert Hodzi

The first benefit is obviously that it's much cheaper to study in China than it is to study in France or to study in the UK or in the US. So that's the first thing, the cost attracts many students, particularly from African countries. The second one is that it seems fairly easier to get the study visa to China than it is to other Western countries, Canada, Australia, the UK. So, it's much, much easier for people to get those visas to study in China. The third thing is that there are scholarships that are provided, the cost of living is much cheaper in China than it is in other countries. And students can study things that they wouldn't otherwise be able to study, let's say in Europe, because of competition for places. Things like engineering, things like pharmacy, or, medicine, for instance. So, students who may not be able to get those places in traditional places like the UK or the US, are beginning to see China as an alternative.

Magdalena Perzyna

And Ben, from your research, what do you see the benefits of studying in China as?

Dr. Ben Mulvey

Yeah, so as Obert said, obviously, the price is really the main one, combined with the fact that there's a wider availability of scholarships. So, although only about 11% of, students are receiving scholarships from the Chinese government, there's also other kinds of partial scholarships, things like that available. Then you have fewer hoops to jump through to get there as well, like Obert mentioned. There's no language test requirements. And the costs associated with that, the visa requirements aren't as stringent. And then also, I think, one thing that perhaps hasn't been mentioned, is it's an opportunity for people who probably wouldn't have the opportunity to study overseas in most other places in more established destinations like the UK, the US, Canada, so it's an opportunity for them to study abroad, and that means an opportunity to sidestep the education system in their home country. So, I think - my research has focused on Africa. So, a lot of countries across the continent have seriously oversubscribed higher education systems. So, it's an opportunity to opt out of that really intense competition for places and universities and universities there. Then one last quick thing is links with China. So, a lot of the countries that send most students, so again, countries across Africa, they tend to have closer bilateral relations with China. And there's lots of foreign direct investment from China, lots of Chinese companies operating in those countries. So, students see it as an opportunity to get skills and competencies that are associated with China in order to maybe go on to work for Chinese companies afterwards.

Magdalena Perzyna

China's investing money in scholarships and infrastructure to draw international students, what is it hoping to gain from this influx of student migrants?

Dr. Obert Hodzi

So, the first thing I guess, is that China wants to be seen as a producer of knowledge, which is something that Western countries have always claimed - that they produce knowledge that is consumed by the rest of the world. And for China as part of its national rejuvenation, trying to see itself as a great power as well, with massive influence abroad, providing scholarships to students is a way of showing that they can produce knowledge that can be consumed by the rest of the world. So, it has that that element. The second one is to have people that understand China. That have a positive image of China, that have a first-hand experience of China. It's pretty much like what other countries have always been doing. Like Germany, for instance, or the US taking people on scholarships, and then hoping that they have a good image. So, it's a way of enhancing its image by providing the scholarships and hoping that when these people go back to their countries, they will speak positively about China. So those are the two main points that I can see. And obviously, the third one is to be seen as a power that can give aid in some way. And there has been a link, or China trying to link scholarships, provision of scholarship, educational opportunities, with development. And that's something that other countries have not been doing. So, what it allows China to do, and countries that are sending students to China, is to some extent, tailor make programs for some students based on the needs that their countries have. So that link between providing education, but education that is tailored to meet the skills gaps, or development gaps that are in sending countries, is something that China is doing, indeed, has done that quite well.

Magdalena Perzyna

In the West students pay four, sometimes five times more than domestic students. How was China's strategy different?

Dr. Obert Hodzi

The reduced cost is obviously a big advantage, is obviously something that they would want. But for China, it's about learning, right? Learning, preparing institutions, to handle international students, which is a big challenge for many of the institutions that are to some...