Since the onset of the pandemic there has been much discussion of student “social bubbles” and whether these might inhibit or protect the student experience.
This has been interesting because some of that discussion tends to assume that these concerns are exclusive to this year. In fact, for international students generally and Chinese students specifically, the way in which social interaction can shape wider integration is an important issue to think about and try to influence.
In order to try to get to the bottom of some of the issues, I created two surveys, one asking Chinese students to share their experiences in Chinese, the other for non-Chinese speaking higher education staff and students with a focus on their interaction with Chinese students.
There are few opportunities to get to know non-Chinese students. When it comes to group work, non-Chinese students know each other and they tend to form their own groups.”
I have found students from mainland China tend not to engage with others during academic work (e.g. group projects or during lectures) or in extracurricular activities (such as societies or sports).”
They’re hardworking, quiet, keep to themselves.”
The results were illuminating – and suggest that some relatively straightforward steps can be taken by universities and their SUs to improve integration and the student experience.
Learning English is a process not a course
One of the important stereotypes is that Chinese students can be quiet and don’t “mix”. But when any of us lack confidence in our language ability we are not able to actively contribute to discussions. Misinterpreting this behaviour as being “passive” is not helpful.
They (largely, this is a generalisation not a fact) keep themselves to themselves, whether by choice or by systemic division it’s unclear. Sometimes there does appear to be a language barrier despite the requirements to study here.”
No Chinese student is allowed to study in the UK without proving a basic ability in the English language – but the IELTS result may not be good enough in practice. And it is not at all clear how many universities review the effectiveness of the expensive pre-sessional courses that they offer.
At most universities, if students pass the internal tests at the end of their pre-sessional course, they can move on to their study programmes. But how much has their English improved during this period and what has been the “learning gain”?
As the internal tests differ from an actual IELTS test, a comparison between test results is not really possible. If these pre-sessional courses are not as effective as they mean to be, universities need to find new ways of helping students to improve their English – both on arrival and on an ongoing basis.
One of the reasons any student studies abroad is immersion – in the culture, and of course the language. But sometimes that experience may not provide what is needed. British tourists to Benidorm may experience a sunny “home from home” rather than a particularly Spanish experience, for example.
In a significant number of universities, it is not uncommon to see flats and blocks of all Chinese occupants, and that may be understandable – it can be intimidating for a single non-Chinese speaking student to be living with Chinese flatmates only. But this kind of “comforting” accommodation allocation means that bubbles form where the Chinese language is almost exclusively spoken.
Indeed, I experienced a different cultural environment and made many new friends, which met my expectations. However, in the end, I don’t think I became more international. I don’t know many non-Chinese students and my English has not improved much.”
Some will justify these practices on the basis of stereotypes and inaccuracies – they say that Chinese students share the same habits so they prefer living together, or argue that Chinese students prefer socialising among themselves. But the critical question is whether Chinese students want to meet new, non-Chinese friends.
I think a small amount of this can be accounted for by language barrier but international students from other Asian nations do not seem to show the same behaviour who I have worked with. I get the impression, for the vast majority, they are only interested in spending time with other mainland Chinese friends and make no effort to integrate, make non-Chinese friends or improve their English language skills.”
In fact, the vast majority of Chinese students hope to improve their English, gain new experiences and make new non-Chinese friends. For those who have studied or are studying in the UK, a large proportion wish they could have integrated more, and say that they would join more societies and clubs if they were to study in the UK again.
Moving into HMOs
If universities are not going to lower the price of their accommodation (#CutTheRent) given the financial difficulty they are experiencing this year, they ought at least to promote guarantor schemes (where the university can be the guarantor) to international students. These enable Chinese students to at least make an attempt to find a more diverse household to stay with.
If your university has not yet set up one for international students, it’s time to do so now – and it would be helpful to see some collaboration between those that have already set one up to test the hypothesis that such schemes are both very low risk and significantly improve integration.
Attainment and lecture capture
Getting a good UK degree is the default objective for many Chinese students, but discussion on the international attainment gap that exists in some many universities is almost non-existent. It is important that some of the techniques we have begun to successfully apply to other gaps – including listening to and understanding the lived experience of students – begin to be applied to international students generally and Chinese students specifically.
The centrality of the academic objective is why recordings of lectures are so important. We may see this specific aspect improved this year thanks to the impact of Covid-19 (particularly given students in different time zones may be unable to come to campus), but the wider question surrounds an ongoing need for lecturers to consider the accessibility of teaching materials both for disabled students and for those who do not speak English as their first language.
Many Chinese students worry where language is a barrier, some avoiding communication altogether. It is clear from my survey that this can be overcome by encouraging Chinese students to speak English (patience is crucial). It can be nerve-wrecking for them to speak a language that they are not yet good at in front of native or more fluent speakers and this is normal, but the more they speak and share in English, the more fluent and confident they become.
In an age of Covid-19 where most of the “interactive” activities (group discussions, meetings etc,) will be online, the chair or the lecturer has a responsibility to make sure students have the chance to raise points. For non-native speakers, it is hard for them to interject in meetings where they are translating constantly in their minds. In a Zoom or Teams world, actively encouraging and using chat functions to draw input can make it easier for students working in a second language to raise their points.
It may seem tempting to have Chinese speakers on the staff team to communicate with Chinese students, especially at an early stage of the engagement process. In theory, they would be able to explain to non-Chinese speaking colleagues the nuances or more complicated ideas that Chinese students may not be able to express in English.
But Chinese students would still be able to avoid speaking English this way, creating an environment where those Chinese speaking staff become Chinese students’ major (if not only) port of call when they need support – and they may not reach out if Chinese speaking staff are absent. Chinese speaking staff should never become interpreters for students.
Communicating to students in English directly is so important. I’ve heard stories, for example, of lecturers who “hate Chinese students who address me as sir”. Instead of complaining about that in a meeting, why not tell students how you expect to be addressed? Doing so helps them to improve their English and makes them aware of something that they might not know before.
Students in the survey were keen to express themselves – every student is unique and has their own stories, regardless of nationality or ethnicity. It means universities should create a culture where it is worth taking the time to listen, understand and engage.
There is no doubt that since the onset of Covid-19, some people have become openly racist towards the East Asian community. But more generally, on campus at least, it is general discrimination and xenophobia that Chinese students face.
It is true, for example, that most Chinese students would not have much interest in formal “politics” because that is not something they have been actively engaged in back home. Influenced by what they have read and been taught over the years, most would not be keen voters, would have a different understanding of how government works, and would not recognise some aspects of students’ unions – in China such bodies are centrally managed by the university.
But none of that means that all Chinese students think the same way, learn the same way or are incapable of critical thinking! The respondents to my surveys worry that in many universities, the assumption is that the mere presence of international students creates a “global community”, when it needs active work to achieve it.
There is a fine line between understanding cultural differences and stereotyping. As such it becomes more important, not less, for students’ unions to properly engage Chinese students in relation to student representation, governance, campaigns and elections. Experiencing this is one of the reasons they chose to study in the UK.
I don’t think the university has helped Chinese students to adapt to a different teaching mode. But of course I am to blame as well. My English is not good enough. Sometimes I was taught and asked to read certain materials, but I couldn’t tell if those were of importance.”
Most of the time, events at the university require knowledge of local culture, which makes it difficult for international students. As the university is a multicultural environment, there is a need for different cultural events. Or an introduction of the background before the event could be provided for international students.”
Experiencing individual acts of discrimination is common for Chinese students, and the risk is heightened thanks to Covid-19. Universities will need to think about how they might support and signpost students (not only Chinese) facing these problems. Different students have different levels of sensitivity towards discrimination and a different understanding of what a safe campus means – so it is important for universities to mitigate student expectations and make improvements before students arrive.
So many universities only seek to influence international students to this end, but home students would benefit from considering how to welcome and interact with international students. The disparity between a warm embrace of Chinese culture from the Brits (which is the ideal for many Chinese students) and a cold or hostile reality could help engagement or easily make students disheartened.
I wish I had more opportunities to get to know non-Chinese students. Now gradually I am afraid of going to social events where there are a lot of non-Chinese people. When I speak to non-Chinese friends, I would even wonder if they like me at all. It is not that I only want to socialise with non-Chinese. I just want to know more about the (British) culture there and communicate with different people, which is one of my reasons for studying abroad.”
Events “for” international students don’t normally attract home students. If much more induction activity is online in September 2020, international offices and SUs should be finding ways to encourage or facilitate interaction between home students and international students through activities or events, making efforts towards integration.
Important questions surround harassment – but very little of the harassment work specifically addresses international students. How many international students (let alone Chinese) are aware of anti-harassment campaigns or ever use initiatives like “Report and Support” tools?
Are you aware of any incidents of xenophobia or discrimination against your students on an off campus, and have you shown enough support to them? Would you be confident and say that the staff at your university all understand EDI, hold no prejudice against certain student groups and need no further training? There is so much more that can be done.
And whilst cultural appreciation is almost universally recommended as a way of engaging Chinese students (e.g. Chinese New Year celebrations), avoiding some sensitive topics obviously is not. Integration requires effort from everyone, so a curriculum that is inclusive will be very important for the development of an inclusive student community.
A combination of poor English language skills, large Chinese student population and little to no interest in local culture. Chinese state media, social media and influence from organisations like Chinese Embassies encourage staying within their own groups by funding and supporting groups such as the CSSA on campus which help the CCP retain influence over Chinese students even while they are abroad.”
Encouraging healthy debates among a diverse student population matters – some will find it difficult to get ideas across to Chinese students at times, but they have been living in China for many years and are likely to hold on to different “truths”.
Being empathetic and having structures and systems that allow these issues to be explored rather than dismissed is vital. It takes time and care to create a culture that nurtures students and supports them to become free and critical thinkers.
A process not a project
As well as the specific issues raised above, some general conclusions are clear when I read between the lines of the surveys. Almost everyone believes in integration – but it takes work, and constant dialogue.
There are many issues I have not covered above. For example – on some programmes or individual modules, Chinese students outnumber both “home” students and other international students. That situation will pose a problem for all concerned if a university’s integration efforts are focussed on simplistic assimilation to British “academic culture”.
Above all, what my surveys suggest is that effective integration is not just a couple of events or dedicated communications at the start of term – it is an ongoing process that requires students and staff from both the UK and other countries to be prepared to hear and really listen to how others are experiencing their educational experience. With opportunities to interact with other students more restricted than ever this year, committing to this kind of ongoing effort is more important than ever.