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Chinese international students: Talents for China and the world

(supported by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany)

November 20, 2015

MERICS invited international academic experts and practitioners to discuss chances and challenges of Chinese international students and the internationalization of China’s educational system on November 20, 2015. Chinese students constitute the largest group of foreign students worldwide, a trend increasing at 11 per cent over 2014. The event focused on a recent survey conducted in summer 2015 among this group by Simon Lang, researcher at the Mercator Institute of China Studies (MERICS).

Among the 40 attendees were representatives from several embassies, overseas offices and joint cooperation programs of various universities, and decision makers in the private education sector. They came together to discuss how to better understand why young Chinese want to pursue higher education abroad. In focus were concrete study plans, financing models and their career-ambitions.

How can host countries benefit more from Chinese students? How they can control their influx more efficiently? At what point academic exchange is becoming harmful knowledge transfer for host countries and enterprises? The answers to these questions provide a basis for considering long-term implications for Germany, English-speaking countries and China.

Presentation of survey-based study on future international students

Simon Lang presented major findings from an online-survey drawing on 569 respondents and elaborated on insights he gained during numerous focus-group discussions among language students in several Chinese cities. He provided a comparative perspective on students’ motivation to go abroad and varying attitudes towards English-speaking countries and Germany.

Most respondents intend to stay in their future host country after graduation. For returnees foreign enterprises are the most attractive employers but most work in Chinese companies. Career objectives were not the only decisive factor for students choosing either their preferred study location or making choices about emigrating or returning home. Considerations influenced by countries’ soft power were key for many respondents. Chinese as well as foreign cultural attractiveness and their family ties were among their top concerns.

Of particular interest were discussions on the generous financial subsidies Chinese students receive when studying within the German education higher education system. While Germany is requiring students to take the university entrance examination, Berlin sees higher education more as a common good for all. Most English-speaking countries, however, use standardized tests to select the most talented and the financially most eligible students.

Expert Discussion of the Findings

A panel discussion featuring Ira Cohen, Executive Vice President, Universal Ideas Consultants Corp, Matt Durnin, Regional Head of Research and Consultancy (East Asia), British Council, Isabell Hinsberger PASCH (Schools: Partners for the Future) Project Leader, Goethe-Institute, Beijing, and Sabine Porsche, Vice Director, Sino-German College of Applied Science at Tongji University, Shanghai followed the opening presentation. The discussion among the panelists from these different backgrounds focused on adjusting to Chinese outbound students’ needs, reducing bureaucratic barriers for scholarly exchange on both sides, effective recruitment strategies, new methods of language teaching and the role of Chinese international graduates’ expertise on the international labor market.

All panelists emphasized the need for fostering mutual benefits from knowledge exchange. Actors should avoid educating Chinese students as future competitors on national labor markets. The participants addressed potentially conflicting interests related to the international education of young Chinese: making money, educating Chinese talents for specific industries or turning these students into cultural mediators, who keep close links with their former host country after graduation.  

Panelists as well as participants from the audience recognized that the Xi Jinping administration, compared to previous leaders, emphasizes ideology as a vital element in education. The assessments on how this development affects international education and China’s ambitions to boost innovation und industrial upgrading plans varied. Some raised concerns that the central government’s suspicion towards Western ideas and teachings will threaten academic freedom at transnational higher education providers in China. Moreover, attendees reflected to which extent the current political system can allow or even foster pluralism of thought and critical thinking. Most agreed that these skills are necessary to move from an industrial manufacturing based growth model to an innovation driven economy.  

German Language Report by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Beijing

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