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On October 19, Inside Higher Ed published an essay by Adele Barker, a professor at the University of Arizona, titled, “A professor’s experience with unprepared Chinese students.” She addressed two related questions: “What are all these Chinese students, coming in increasing numbers to the US, doing here in the first place?” and, “Are they getting the education they are expecting?”

Readers may have been surprised or even upset by the first part of her essay, where she describes the lack of English, poor communication skills and limited rationales for studying in the US. In combination with references to cheating and fraud, one might misunderstand her message and intent.

Let me first address the negative perceptions about Chinese student qualifications and motivations with respect to study in the US.

There is indeed evidence of cheating and fraud by Chinese students, as we have similar evidence about this for other international students. American newspapers describe the new inflow of Chinese students as students driving Porsches, Maseratis and Lamborghinis (Boston Globe, 11 October 2015).  It is important to note that there are many similar US students who dress in designer clothes and drive luxury cars, but the very large majority of students enrolled in the US—Chinese and others—study with limited financial means and work hard to get their degree. The reality in a massive higher education system is that some students will have very rich parents, but the large majority do not, whether Chinese, Indian, African, Latino or white Americans. And some get access to our higher education system even if they do not deserve to, whatever selection mechanisms or tests one uses.

When the “push factor” is very high, as is the case with international students and in particular students from countries like China, the students are likely to take chances. Should we blame them for that? Of course, cheating and fraud are not to be tolerated, but as long as our tests and selection mechanisms cannot consistently identify cheaters, and as long as universities (as Adele Barker correctly points out) are inclined to admit large numbers of international students for financial reasons, there will be limited inclination to evaluate the effectiveness of the selection mechanisms. And unqualified national and international students will continue to be admitted, either because revenue is needed or because the applicant cheated the system.

There are three ways for universities to overcome the risk of admitting incoming students without adequate preparation or skills. In the first place, the institutions can invest in more individualized selection systems. When selecting doctoral students and increasingly also master students, we study their dossiers with great attention; we interview them by Skype or FaceTime to evaluate their level of English; and we select only those who we confident are qualified. Given the numbers of candidates at the undergraduate level, this is time consuming and costly, so less practical.

In the second place, we might refer more students to pathway or foundation year programs, where they receive special attention in order to overcome deficiencies in skills, such as English, but also in other areas. Private pathway programs are rapidly expanding and haves become a global industry and an increasing number of universities outsource this process to big companies such as Navitas, Kaplan International Colleges, Study Group, Cambridge Education Group and INTO. According to Studyportals, this is an industry now worth over USD 835 million with more than 1,000 programs worldwide. One might wonder if third-party intervention truly helps to create the right fit between the students and the institutions and programs where they ultimately enroll.

A third solution demands more and better training of the teaching staff to deal with a diverse and international student body. In my experience, deficiencies do not necessarily have to persist throughout the whole study period. Given the high motivation often typical of international students, the large majority study extremely hard, read with great care, and do their utmost to get involved in classroom discussions and assignments. Much research has been done over the years about the integration of international students in the classroom, and a general lesson learned is that the teaching staff is key to the success of this group. Teachers have to understand the implications of cultural diversity, how different students learn and which teaching methods are most familiar to different cultures; they have to learn how to stimulate the quiet students (those who are silent because of limited command of English, their culture or their character) to participate. Professors need appropriate training for this. All this costs money that many universities are not willing, or not able, to invest, despite the benefits they receive from enrolling these students.

For all students, international and national, to be successful and to receive the best education, we should avoid seeing them as “cash cows,” but rather as motivated students in search of a quality education who may need special consideration and support from the institution and professors who receive them. The combination of shrinking public funds, increasing tuition fees and the growing trend to outsource services to commercial operators, decrease the likelihood that students will receive the quality education they seek. Recently a journalist asked me, “Should parents of US students be worried about their investment in the education of their kids, as a consequence of the increased number of Chinese students in their classrooms?” I could only answer, “Yes, but the parents of the Chinese students should perhaps be worried even more, because they are paying even more money to send their kids to that classroom, and those students have the same right to a quality education.”  It isn’t at all clear that everyone is getting what they need or what they deserve.



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