The predictable response to the question “why do young Chinese students come to the UK to study?” is “for a variety of reasons”. However, the starting point for actually answering this question is that young Chinese students come to the UK for an education that will attract greater employment opportunities back in China – better jobs, better salaries and significant social advancement. The coveted key to these opportunities is a degree from a prestigious UK university. Such a degree will also serve to impress relatives, friends and people in general and this will lead to a boost in status for themselves and for their families. The value placed on reputation and social standing should not be underestimated, for they carry much greater weight in China than they do in the UK.
Tables ranking the top 10 or top 50 of the world’s best universities can vary considerably, but they are all consistent in that UK universities are always present in the top 10, whereas the highest placing I have ever seen for a Chinese university, usually the University of Beijing or the University of Tsinghua, is in the 40s or 50s. For the present, no university in China (and very few from the rest of the world) can produce the same mystique as the young man or woman who utters the words: “I am a graduate from Oxford/Cambridge/LSE/Imperial College.”
What are the reasons behind this view? The character and spirit of education in China is too rigid. Many Chinese teachers complain that “learning and teaching for the high score” is counter-productive. It is not what education should be about. Education in the UK, on the other hand, is seen and admired as a system which teaches the skills for lifelong progress and promotes adaptability and flexibility of mind – essential qualities to one’s development as a successful social being. Here, students are provoked to think for themselves and to risk experimentation. Never mind that the student came up with the wrong answer, what counts is the thought process. This is what education is all about and it is this aspect of a UK education that is often commented upon by Chinese students, who describe how they were initially taken aback by the emphasis placed on the need to constantly question or challenge all and any ‘established’ ideas and methods.
Having made the decision that their son or daughter should graduate from a top UK university, Chinese parents then make the reasonable assumption that the UK schools and colleges from which the elite universities draw many of their students must themselves be of the highest calibre. Therefore, it makes logical sense to try and send their children to such schools, thereby gaining the two-fold benefit of a solid, well-grounded education which will begin with A levels (or a pre-university foundation course) and which is then coupled to the hope or expectation that this will be an effective route straight into a UK premier-league university.
Although the quality of a UK education is the primary attraction, numerous conversations with Chinese parents and students bring out other reasons of varying importance. These include a desire to learn English properly “from the horse’s mouth”, “pure English”, “as it should be spoken”. Clearly, China’s growing interaction with the English-speaking world holds out great rewards for those who can speak both Mandarin and English clearly and fluently.
Andrew Tardios is headmaster of St John’s Prep and Senior School, Enfield, Potters Bar and a founder member of the Global K-12 Education Research Association, Shijiazhuang, China