China and global higher education

In terms of the global flow of international students, there’s no bigger actor than China–they send hundreds of thousands of students overseas each year (662,100 in 2018) and institutions in the US, UK, Australia and Canada compete for them and the economic benefits and cultural diversity they bring to campus with them. There has been an expansion of higher education opportunities for Chinese students, with more students from ordinary backgrounds pursuing degrees overseas–it’s no longer exclusively for wealthy elites. Chinese students are also increasingly likely to return home after their studies–fears of international higher education contributing to the ‘brain drain’ phenomenon are not reflected in practice.

The Diplomat recently featured an interview with former Ambassador and current VP of International Programs at Washington State University, Dr. Asif Chaudhry. When Dr. Chaudhry was asked about U.S. policymakers’ concerns about Confucius Institutes (CI), his response captured the key elements of the debate very clearly & concisely:

“This can be a very controversial topic because of the potential for conflicts among issues of protecting U.S. interests, principles of academic freedom, and concern over curricular control and Chinese state censorship. In this complex environment, it is important to not lose sight of the value of promoting shared cultural understanding. It seems more productive to ask a somewhat different set of questions: a) is the current CI model the best way to achieve the goals of providing Chinese language learning and Chinese cultural understanding and/or, b) how else can this be done without hosting a CI in an era in which it is crucial to intellectually engage with China and protect the integrity of the goals and values of higher education?”

Dr. Asif Chaudhry, US-Asia Education Exchange: The Impact of Public Diplomacy

I particularly liked his second question, the idea of alternative ways of engaging with China that go beyond the Confucius Institute. Exchanges are an obvious answer, as are overseas campuses that bring Western institutions to mainland China. Last year, the government ended many of its partnerships with foreign universities, but they remain a significant link between Chinese students and Western faculty.

I also liked Dr. Chaudhry’s emphasis on cultural understanding. He connected discussions of U.S. policy towards Asian students to larger questions of cultural exchange and understanding.

“Without exposing U.S. students and scholars to other cultures of the world and vice versa, we cannot ensure a mindful understanding and appreciation of each other in a global economy. Policy decisions that inhibit the free flow of ideas or the ability to interact with each other are ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests at large.”

ibid.

Connecting U.S. interests to international education is a classic way of generating political support–Senator Fulbright did it in the 50’s when he argued for exchange funding as part of a larger Cold War strategy. Today, it might be the global economy instead–very important, especially in light of Trump’s trade war with China. American policymakers worry about the impact of Confucius Institutes, but the trade war has much more immediate, tangible effects that are worth worrying about.

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