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China learns English

More news from the Independent concerning the globalisation of education, which is all mixed up with the global mega-success story that is the English language:

A successful Chinese industrialist was boasting proudly that his son was at a British educational institution, one of the best in the country. However, he couldn’t remember which. After racking his brains, he decided to call his wife on the mobile phone. But his wife couldn’t recall the name of the elite establishment either. In desperation, the entrepreneur had only one choice: he fast-dialled his son in the United Kingdom to ask where the boy was being educated.

This is a true story, illustrating not only the Chinese affection for mobile telephones, but also their enthusiasm for a foreign education. In China, to receive your schooling or your degree at an institution in Britain, or Australia, or the United States automatically puts you into the top league. The name of the university or school is not as important as the fact that you have tasted learning outside the People’s Republic. No wonder universities from the United Kingdom are falling over one another to meet this huge demand.

Last year, the number of Chinese students in the UK reached a new record – 25,000. But there are millions of people in China now who aspire to, and receive, a university education and would leap at the chance to get a degree from the UK. In the three years between 1997 and 2000, there was remarkable growth in student numbers within China, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Numbers increased from 3.2 million students to a staggering seven million. (The government target is 15 million.)

Ironically, given China’s status as a Communist country, many of the new universities that are being set up to deal with this demand are private. There are 1,300 private institutions now in operation, and alliances between Chinese and foreign organisations are burgeoning.

While English educators fret about whether English people are well enough behaved, Chinese educators worry that the Chinese are too well behaved. Too dutiful, obedient, conformist, uninventive, inflexible.

Seriously, one suspects that the real product here is not just Anglosphere education, but Anglosphere education plus a bit of that Anglosphere attitude, hence the indifference concerning exactly which University their children go to. It could be a winning combination. Although I reckon word will soon get around which universities are the best.

It makes you wonder what Mao would have thought about it all. “I ordered you to have a permanent revolution and challenge all authority, but I didn’t mean this!” Attitude!

And quite aside from the impact of all this on China, there is the interesting matter of how it will affect Britain. How long before someone uses the word ‘swamped’ to describe what is happening to higher education? All those foreigners, taking our children’s places. And working too hard.

14 comments to China learns English

  • Jacob

    Could it be that the Chinese send their sons to Oxford so they can get a good communist education ? Isn’t that what you get at Oxford ?

  • East Asian students going to UK universities and working twice as hard as everyone else (while still being pleased, since the opportunity to do social things outside working hours is far greater than outside home) is an old story – it’s nice to see the Chinese added to the Singaporeans, Thais and Malaysians.

    Apocryphal story alert: one of the halls of residence at UMIST in Manchester is shared with a conference centre, and makes up additional accommodation for the conference outside term time. According to legend, only non-EU students are allowed to live in this hall, because they won’t be sick on the guests, break the furniture or set off the fire alarm at 3AM every morning.

  • & Jacob – no, more like the opposite. Oxford is not a leftist institution – indeed, it’s forced to be extremely unpolitically biased in general, thanks to the blinding media spotlight on anything that anyone might disapprove of that takes place there (cf the anti-Israeli-discriminating academic who was ‘encouraged to resign’).

    The above is true for the politics, psychology, economics, philosophy and history departments, anyway. Possibly the sociology department leans leftward, but this is arguably more reflective of the discipline than the institution.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    john b

    It may be an old story that other Asian countries have been doing this, but when China does it, that’s a new story, because China is – how shall we put it? – a somewhat bigger country.

  • BigFire

    Foreign education has been a long tradition in Chinese politics. The founder of Chinese Republic Dr. Sun Yat-sen (not the communist) formulated his ideas while receiving his post-grad education in Hawaii.

  • S. Weasel

    According to his personal physician and biographer, Mao surrounded himself with people trained in the West, preferably the US or UK. And he makes frequent references to Mao’s staff practicing their English together.

    A much recommended book.

  • ed

    Interesting. I too wonder what will happen to China’s attitudes in the long run. I suspect, not much. Nationalism can always be counted on to remove all rationality from reasoning.

    In another vein here in America we’ve seen much the same effect. Literal “Swarms of Slanties” overwhelm our colleges. (note I can use terms like “Slanties” because I are one. nyah :P) The most basic method used to deal with influx of highly qualified aspirants is to use the Great Club of Diversity and deny them access.

    Amusing isn’t it? That bastion of Liberality, Berkeley College, had (or stil has) a policy of limiting asian students to no more than 3%-4% of the student body. So, strangely enough, having a 1500+ SAT isn’t hardly enough if you’re an asian, but having a 700- SAT is ok if you’re african american or hispanic. Wierd that.

    Strange stuff. I almost feel like I’m black during the age of Jim Crow. Except of course that asians are not a minority in America. At least not for diversity or affirmitive action.

    Which might be the key to asian success in America. 🙂

  • Just a quibble: Is it proper to call Mainland China a “Communist” country at this late date? It seems to me that they have degenerated into a strange amalgam of semi-capitalist economics combined with a fairly rigid police state. Of course, the government is utterly corrupt, like all Marxist-styled governments are, but the Soviets would never have forgotten themselves enought to allow things like a stock market or readily available cell-phones.

    I think they have ended up as merely a party-dominated oligarchy that is happy to make money, but allows no action that might threaten the ruling clique. Communism has become a sort of tattered state religion, observed on holidays but not really relevant to every day life. And still utterly corrupt.

  • Easy. Open local branches of Oxford and Cambridge in Beijing. Sezchuan College? The English University of Pork Balls?

    p.s. Ed. If you’re being self-deprecating, you’re not “Slanties” at all. You’re “Slopes”. Or so my japanese speaking former Tokyo-living wife tells me.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    If you look carefully at what these chinese students are studying, you’ll be quite intrigued.

    Of example, in my university(National University of Singapore), the chinese students are mostly in the hard sciences, engineering, and IT. I think not a single one of them actually majors in the Arts and Social Sciences(they think it’s useless, which I personally agree). Infering from this sample, the same should go for those chinese in the US, Australia, and Britain. So don’t worry about their being brainwashed by those pesky socialists. 😉

    Personal anecdote: About 60-80% of the post-grad students in the chemistry department are China chinese. Thank god we share a common language(mandarin), because they just can’t get used to using english no matter how many times we tell them to say, “Pass me that bottle of ethanol,” instead of “Gei wo na guan ethanol”. And their language skills are, by and large, atrocious in either mandarin OR english.

    Anyway, if I was bothered enough, I could be trying to liberalise them. Oh well… Winning debates on 2nd Gulf was good enough. ^_^

    The knee-jerk anti-Americanism I see in many chinese students still makes me want to laugh, especially when one realises that many of them aspire to further education there!

    And I love bringing the issue of Taiwan up. Heh.

  • The Wobbly Guy’s comment immediately above about them having trouble with English made me chuckle; there is an English language proficiency requirement now to get into Chinese universities. I wonder which is the higher bar, the level of English language skill to get into an Anglosphere school, or one in the PRC?

  • The Wobbly Guy

    In Singapore, we don’t turn them away. We make them sit for a proficiency test, and if they fail, it simply means they have to take an additional module in english proficiency on top of their normal courses.

    Needless to say, most of them ended up failing. But so did some of my local friends.


    I’d have to ask my chinese friends about the english requirement for universities in China one day.

  • Another trend that is very apparent in Australia (but perhaps less so in the UK) is for students to be ethnically Chinese students from other Asian countries. The largest number are from Malaysia, where ethnically Chinese are discriminated against to a huge extent in being admitted to local universities, but we see them from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and various other places. (It’s also quite common for Malaysians in particular to get jobs in Australia and stay after graduation, too, which is fine as they are generally excellent people). As well as ethnic Chinese, we are also now getting substantial numbers of Indians which is interesting as having Indian people in any numbers in Australia is a relatively new development, although there have been Chinese since the mid 19th century.

    Secondly, the students do overwhelmingly technical and scientific degrees. Go into an engineering graduation ceremony at many Australian universitites and two thirds (or more) of the names of people graduating will be Asian. Some will be Australians of Asian ancestry (many of who are the children of Vietnamese refugees of the 1970s) rather than oversees students per se but it is certainly interesting.

    Thirdly: I haven’t been to Oxford, but I did study at Cambridge and I suspect it is similar to Oxford. Cambridge is in aggregate far less leftist than either of the two universities I studied at in Australia. That is not to say that bits of the university are not leftist – bits are very leftist – but there is far more political diversity than you will see at many institutions.

    Finally, does Berkeley really restrict itself to 3-4% Asians. While I am sure they have (de facto if not de jure quotas) that is an astonishingly small number, given that as I understand it the population of California is more than 5% Asian. In a few decades this is going to look at least as silly and offensive as the quotas for Jews of a few decades ago look now. (That is if it does not look silly and offensive already).

  • The Wobbly Guy

    The Malaysian discrimination against the chinese race is disgusting. It’s one of the most extreme examples of affirmative action outside the US, and serves as a stark reminder of the system’s failure. The bumis(short for bumiputra) are, by and large, lazy, incompetent, useless bums. They don’t work hard because they expect a free ride from the government when they graduate.

    So fine. Let them enjoy their substandard bumis who can’t do s**t while the really capable folk(the chinese) leave their country for opportunities overseas, of which Singapore is one, and Australia another. Nobody wants to be a second class citizen.