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Why are Chinese students so keen on the UK?

China is the world's biggest exporter and one of its most contentious exports of late is students.

Every year it is estimated that more than 700,000 Chinese people leave their country to study abroad.

And many of these end up in the UK, learning at British universities.

There are about 144,000 in Britain according to the Higher Education Statistics Authority, a number that is up 50% in just five years.

As the flows of Chinese students into the UK have grown in recent decades there's been growing scrutiny of their impact.

The chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, last year argued that the increasing financial reliance of UK universities on the tuition fees of Chinese students, some with hardline nationalist views, could compromise the academic freedom of these institutions.

Another growing theme is that so-called Crazy Rich Asians - the sons and daughters of rich Chinese industrialists - are swamping campuses and crowding out domestic British students.

Yet there's been rather less focus on the views and attitudes of these Chinese students themselves.

Glasgow is a popular destination for Chinese overseas students, with more than 6,000 studying on its campus, according to the university's authorities.

For a recent Radio 4 documentary, we spent time with some of those students, listening to their perspectives and stories.

And what we found belied many of the stereotypes and raised concerns that have received scant attention.

Despite the Crazy Rich Asian cliché, we found that many were from modest financial backgrounds.

"I was 24 years old and had no experience of living in another country," says student Hua.

"I came from a small village in the countryside in Shandong province."

Indeed, the majority had never left China before they arrived and experienced a culture shock on arrival.

The initial attraction of Glasgow - as well as its solid academic reputation - to many was how the Victorian university buildings looked on the brochures, rather like Hogwarts from the Harry Potter films

"I was amazed by the buildings in Glasgow because I'd never seen that before," says Yifei.

Some felt they weren't getting value for money from the considerable sums their families had scrimped and saved over many years to fund their education.

"I would say that the Chinese students don't get enough attention or enough services for their money," Hua told us.

Luna asks a question of the university.

"We sometimes call ourselves study machines," she says.

"Do you really want to be a study machine maker - or do you really care about the student's wellbeing and want to help them achieve the most during their overseas study?," Luna asks.

Some wanted to integrate more with local life and felt the university wasn't doing enough to facilitate that, being too ready to house them in large exclusively Chinese blocks of residence - like the city's West Village development - and not doing enough to develop their English language skills.

"I really want to make friends with local people, but I don't know how to communicate with them - that makes me a little bit sad," says Fiona.

Glasgow University told us: "As well as language assistance, the university offers international students a host of dedicated services, from practical and academic advice and guidance, to health and wellbeing support, from pre-departure right through to graduation and beyond."

As for politics, despite the fear that students are intolerant Communist Party mouthpieces who impose their views on others, what we found more often was a reticence to get involved in political discussions.

"Even if we have more access to different opinions about democracy and other political topics we don't talk about it that much because we will get in trouble," says a post-graduate student called Eugene.

"We can have some opinions in our own hearts, in our own minds, but we don't talk about this".

But he added that one of the attractions of a UK university, at least for him, was that it allowed more individuality and self-expression than a Chinese higher education.

"You don't have to be a product on an assembly line," he says.

Nevertheless, one student called Jo from Taiwan did say she felt uncomfortable because of the nationalist political attitudes of some Chinese students.

"I don't like to make friends with Chinese students because usually I will get bullied. They always say 'you are Chinese' but I am not," Jo says.

Yet the point is that there is no typical overseas Chinese student experience - just as there is no typical overseas Chinese student.

Cora Xu, a former Chinese international student who now lectures at Durham University, told us that the central problem is that these students tend to be regarded and treated as a homogeneous bloc, both in the public discourse and also by university administrators.

"They are treated as a faceless group that shares certain negative stereotypes," she says.

"[But] they're extremely heterogeneous, extremely diverse - they are very, very vibrant."

This article was originally published on the BBC website on 5 March 2022


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