Are Chinese Students Driving Educational Imperialism?

Chinese students are flooding into America to obtain their college degrees. But, Adele Barker asks, are they getting the education they have come here to receive?

October 19, 2015

A lot has been written recently about the problem of cheating among Chinese students studying here in America. Recently, The New York Times reported a complex scheme in which 15 Chinese nationals were indicted for hiring other Chinese to take the SAT and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) in their place.

While the cheating is clearly a source of concern, let me suggest that we should be asking other, more pertinent questions, namely, what are these students doing here in the first place, and are they getting the education they have come here to receive?

The numbers tell the story. Of the more than a million international students studying in the United States, a staggering 29 percent come from China, with India placing a distant second at 14 percent. Most of the Chinese students study at the larger Research I universities, including Columbia, New York and Purdue Universities, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.

In fact, data from the Institute for International Education show that, between 2000 and 2014, America saw a fivefold increase in the number of students coming from China. The institution where I teach, the University of Arizona, is emblematic of that trend. Of the 3,696 foreign students studying here, 1,791 enrolled from China. This is huge.

Yet, in my experience, most of these students arrive here with not enough English to succeed and scarcely enough to pass, if they do at all. Last year, all 20 of the Chinese students who took my 100-level Russian history course failed. Why? They couldn’t understand my lectures. They were unable to read or write in English. Many of my colleagues have reported a similar situation.

I reach out to those students, asking them to come and see me in office hours. I send them emails. No response. Sometimes they just disappear altogether.

And yet without enough English to succeed, or in most cases even to pass, the Chinese students keep arriving on campus. What is going on here?

For one thing, America is still the city on the hill; we remain the gold standard for foreign students seeking an education abroad. This fact explains, although it does not condone, the problem of cheating. Many Chinese students are doing whatever it takes to get accepted by an American college or university -- including not only taking special courses in China that teach them how to manipulate the TOEFL exam (one of the two required tests given to international students that measure English proficiency) but also engaging in blatantly illegal activity, such as using fraudulently obtained passports and visas.

Students from China continue to arrive in increasing numbers because that American degree is worth even more now since China instituted its one-child birth policy in the late 1970s. Singletons, as Vanessa Fong argues in Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy, are under intense pressure to become their parents’ retirement plans, to achieve elite status in education and to land high-paying jobs -- all of which will bring China in line with other first world countries. The pressure on these students is enormous. And, in a notable shift, this now applies equally to boys and girls.

“Everything is about grades. It’s in my blood,” a young female Chinese student who was retaking my course told me. “My parents expect me to do this.”

But am I, as a professor who teaches such students, giving them the education they have come here to get? For me, that question is getting harder and harder to answer in the affirmative.

As a faculty member at a large state university, I feel the diminishing quality of the education that I am able to provide as my class sizes increase and state funding for education is constantly cut. The size of many of my classes prohibits any kind of sustained contact with my students. And while I regularly teach upward of 200 students per course each semester, many of my colleagues teach anywhere from 500 to 1,000.

In Arizona alone, we currently have 15,500 foreign students at the various colleges and universities. Significantly, most of them are self-paying. Their contribution to our state economy in Arizona through tuition and living expenses is more than $400 million, certainly a nontrivial amount.

The fact is that the city on the hill is starved for revenue. Arizona topped Louisiana as the state with the greatest drop in spending on higher education per student between 2008 and 2014. My university responded by increasing tuition and recruiting students more aggressively, not only domestically but also abroad. Currently, we are facing another $25 million in budget cuts. The bulk of those cuts, $15 million, will come from academic programs.

So it seems we have something of a Faustian bargain: the Chinese students need us for the elite status, the high-paying jobs and the lifestyle they so desperately want back home. We need them to help us keep financially afloat.

For all the talk about building bridges and bringing global perspective to the classroom, the bottom line here in America is that large public universities such as my own need these students for the tuition dollars they provide. Many of the services and programs on my campus are, in fact, supported by non-U.S. tuition.

The solutions to these problems must come from both sides.

China, for its part, is trying to stem the flow by creating top-tier higher-education institutions that will encourage students to remain at home for their college education.

For our part, in the short term, our colleges and universities must work with China to ensure that the students who come here are legitimate and able to handle college-level work in English, either before or after they arrive. While my own university has not implemented any campuswide English language requirements, as institutions like the University of Denver have, international students who are struggling with English are urged to enroll in our Center for English as a Second Language (CESL). Its bridge program enables students to be mainstreamed gradually into regular university classes. Enrollment in CESL is at the students’ own discretion, however, and less than a third of the students currently enrolled in the CESL program come from China.

Ultimately, we need to be sure that we are providing the level of education that we in America have long been known for. Starving our institutions of revenue ultimately diminishes our ability to educate our students, regardless of their country of origin.

A form of educational imperialism will remain in place as long as countries such as China ascribe to the belief that an American degree can provide them with the cultural capital they need to succeed and as long as our institutions are dependent on the revenue brought in by foreign students. But as the dream of an American education continues to hold sway throughout the world, those of us who work in the academy worry increasingly over the quality our sought-after education is supposed to provide.


Adele Barker is a professor of Russian and Slavic at the University of Arizona and was a public voices fellow in 2014-2015 with the OpEd Project, which works to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas in the world.


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