Stereotypes about Chinese international students are mistaken, says study

A new report challenges assumptions about Chinese students and finds they have more in common with European students than commonly assumed

Bright Futures surveyed over 7,000 students, comparing and contrasting the experiences of students from China who have moved to the UK or Germany to study with those who have opted to stay at home for their higher education. Home students in the UK and Germany were also surveyed.

Principal Investigator Professor Yasemin Soysal, from the University of Essex, said: “Chinese international students should first and foremost be viewed as students, rather than as representing a distinctive national population with common characteristics based on their origins.

“Our survey provides rare representative data on one of the most important flows of international students globally, from China to the UK and Germany. Among students moving for higher education, students from China are the largest group from any one country, making up over 20 percent of the global total.

“We found that students have similar aspirations the world over – they go to university not just to enhance their career prospects, but with broader expectations of realising their worth as a person, gaining new experiences, and meeting different people.

“Furthermore, we find that academic and social backgrounds of Chinese students in Europe are much more heterogenous than previously assumed. Universities should ensure

that their policies and practices do not make unwarranted assumptions about this group of students, but approach them as individual students with varied needs, backgrounds and interests, just as they would for their home students.”

A report for the higher education sector on the project, ‘In search of excellence: Chinese students on the move’ was launched on 10 October in London.

“A large majority of Chinese students do not have difficulty in adapting to the new academic environment when they move for higher education.”

Other key findings are:

  • The top priority for Chinese students is receiving a quality education, so rankings of universities and individual subjects are important to them in deciding where to study.
  • Chinese students in Europe are overrepresented in certain subjects, and thus European universities could do more to recruit excellent students from China across the full range of disciplines.  In the UK, the predominance of Chinese students in business and economics (51% of undergraduates and 56% of masters students) contrasts with their relative under-representation in STEM subjects, social sciences and humanities. Germany attracts many more STEM students (61% both for undergraduates and masters students).
  • One of the factors in this pattern of under-recruiting in certain disciplines is cost: 35% of survey respondents at top universities in China who had considered higher education overseas said the main factor in not taking this route was finance.
  • A large majority of Chinese students do not have difficulty in adapting to the new academic environment when they move for higher education: 75% of Chinese international students in the UK said they ‘never/seldom’ have issues with adjustment.
  • Around half of Chinese undergraduates plan to continue studying after their current degree, mostly in their current country of study (85% for both the UK and Germany) and, of those who intend to work, 70% plan to go back to China.
  • Expectations of what students want to gain from their university experience among Chinese students in the UK, Germany and China, as well as among home students in Europe, are very similar.

Following the report’s UK launch at the Great Britain China Centre in London, the findings will be presented at events for the higher education sector in Edinburgh, Brussels and Hong Kong this autumn.

The ‘Bright Futures’ research was conducted by Yasemin Soysal and Dorothee Schneider, University of Essex; Li Qiangand Liu Jingming, Tsinghua University, China; Thomas Faist, Bielefeld University, Germany; Sophia Woodman, University of Edinburgh; and Hector Cebolla-Boado, National Distance Education University, Spain.

Funding for the study came from the Economic and Social Research Council (UK), the DFG (German Research Council) and the National Natural Science Foundation (China).