Inside Story

High stakes, high price

Is an opportunity being lost in the midst of the Chinese student boom?

Margaret Simons 15 October 2019 2668 words

Closer, but no closer: local students are tending not to mix with international students. Paul Miller/AAP Image

International rankings are increasingly important to universities. Rightly or wrongly, they are taken as markers of success. Mostly, they are determined by research as measured by publication in prestigious international journals, and they are what draws prestige-conscious students, especially from China.

It’s one of the unfailing rules of human institutions that if you introduce a measurement, the system changes to meet it, like the leaves of a plant turning to face the sun. So it is that the research output measured by the international rankings grows lush at universities, and those sides of academia not rewarded can dwindle in the shade. One of those things is teaching. Another is the kind of industry-connected research that can be useful but doesn’t reach the international journals.

The students lured to our leading universities may never encounter the academics behind the research that attracted the ranking. Instead, they are often taught by sessional staff and those on short-term contracts. According to the National Tertiary Education Union, only one-third of Australian university staff have secure employment. Forty-three per cent are casuals — their contracts end at the end of each semester; 22 per cent are on fixed-term contracts, typically of between one and two years. Universities have become big employers but not particularly good employers.

The story of Chinese students is mainly about Australia’s top institutions of research and higher learning — the so-called Group of Eight, or Go8 — which charge around A$40,000 a year for courses (compared to around A$25,000 a year among the non-Go8 universities). Go8 universities now earn more from Chinese students, who make up 60 per cent of all foreign enrolments, than they do from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, the basic teaching grant the government pays for the education of domestic students.

Time to declare my position in this story. I work at Monash University, one of the Go8, teaching journalism subjects. Before that, I headed the Master of Journalism course at another Go8 member, the University of Melbourne. I teach Chinese students, though the journalism-focused subjects don’t draw these students in large numbers — partly because a Western-oriented journalism education is of limited use in China, and partly because we demand higher English-language skills. But I have also taught in broader media and communications degrees, where it is common for lectures to contain up to 80 per cent Chinese students.

Chinese students have been among my best and worst pupils. The obvious differences — English-language capabilities chief among them — obscure the many ways in which they mirror any other cohort. Some students are diligent; others are clearly satisfying parental ambitions rather than pursuing their own. Often they are away from parental control and day-to-day support for the first time, with all that implies for fun, personal growth and stress.

In practical journalism assignments, Chinese students naturally gravitate to reporting on their own community. So it is that I have learned from them about students who support themselves by smuggling illicit tobacco from China to Australia. I have seen many reports about the daigou — students and others who buy goods for customers back home concerned about food safety and purity.

My top student last year was Chinese. I will call her Mary, for reasons that will become clear. She completed, to high-distinction standard, an investigative report on the contract essay-cheating business. Websites that sell essays are marketed to Chinese students in English-language countries worldwide. My student interviewed some of those who write the essays. They charge $150 per 1000 words for an assignment designed to attract a pass mark, or more for a credit or a distinction. This is not plagiarism: these are real, original assignments — just not written by the enrolled student. I’d be lying if I said I was confident in spotting them when they cross my desk.

Thanks to Mary’s work, I know that one of the biggest agencies, Meeloun Education, claims to have over 450 writers, more than half with master’s degrees from outside China. They spruik that they can handle assignments in all the major Australian universities, specifically mentioning the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, the University of Adelaide and Monash University. On the strength of this work, Mary got an internship at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which has since published its own stories on contract cheating. Legislation to outlaw these websites is planned.

After asking her if she will talk to me for this article, I meet Mary in Federation Square in central Melbourne. She is thrilled. She tells me she has mentioned our meeting to her mother. Such contact is rare enough to be significant news. This, she says, is the hardest thing for Chinese students. Australians are friendly to them on a superficial basis, but “this notion of personal space, that is very strange and very hard.” Many Chinese students find it hard to penetrate, or even understand, the reserve that surrounds our intimate lives. How can we be so affable yet back away so fast when a Chinese student responds with an expectation of greater intimacy?

Mary is unusual. Her encounters with Australian journalists mean she absorbs local news and views, and her English is flawless. Yet she still struggles to engage with Australians. Most of her Chinese student friends, meanwhile, move through Australian society in a bubble, speaking English only in class. They consume little Australian media, instead relying heavily on Chinese-language social media news services targeted to Chinese students in Australia.

Fran Martin at the University of Melbourne has been conducting a five-year study of Chinese international students. Her subjects are all women — partly because of her research specialty in gender studies, but also because 60 per cent of all Chinese students overseas are female. This imbalance is even more striking given that women comprise fewer than 50 per cent of the Chinese population, thanks to a skewed birth ratio under the one-child policy.

Martin found that the failure to make Australian friends is a major disappointment for Chinese students. Making friends from other countries is one of their main motivations for coming to Australia. They blame their failure on poor English-language skills, but Martin sees this as a symptom, not a cause. Australian universities aren’t doing enough to provide them with the experience they seek. The best way to learn a language is to use it — and Chinese students don’t get those opportunities.

“It’s an indictment on the universities that they don’t do more to break up the cliques, to force interaction,” Martin tells me. Teaching staff should be doing more to encourage student interaction, she says, and this in turn would help international students improve their English. But they aren’t trained in the kind of cross-cultural skills needed. By failing to do this, Australian universities are depriving both their international customers and the domestic students, who could benefit from such interaction. Despite the numbers of international students, we are not running a genuinely international system of education.

The experience of being in Australia changes female Chinese students, says Martin, but perhaps not in the ways we might expect. The young women return home with a greater sense of independence and are more likely to resist state and family pressure to marry early and have children. But when asked if this reflects their contact with Australian values, they are likely to dismiss the idea. Rather, it was the experience of being away from their family, together with an awareness of the time and money spent on their education.

Australian politics can also be puzzling for Chinese students. Living in the city, they see every demonstration that brings the streets to a halt. Martin says many are intrigued: why are people bothering? When it is explained that enough public attention might change votes, and that might change the government, they understand — but are unlikely to change their view.

This mirrors my experiences in the classroom. In my subjects, Chinese students are often openly critical of their own government, but when China is criticised by others, they can be defensive. Even the journalism students, who crave more media freedom at home, will argue that China’s large population and many challenges necessitate strong party rule. It is rare for a student from China to advocate a Western system of media freedom. And most resent how the Australian media depicts China — and their presence on campus — as a threat.

In 2017, then foreign minister Julie Bishop made a statement warning Chinese students to respect freedom of speech at Australian universities amid growing unease over Beijing’s alleged influence on campuses. Martin says most of her subjects weren’t aware of the statement until it was picked up by Chinese-language social media. Then they were “outraged — very offended.”

It has been one of the tropes, this allegation that Chinese students attempt to suppress freedom of speech. Sometimes they are accused of trying to close down debate in lectures. The same couple of anecdotes tend to get recycled — and helped to provoke a recent government review of freedom of speech on campus, conducted by former High Court chief justice Robert French, which found no evidence of a systemic problem.

Fran Martin and Mary both told me they had never seen any evidence that Chinese students were either threatened or threatening when it came to freedom of speech. I had never seen it myself, nor had any of the colleagues I asked. Then, in the week after I conducted interviews for this essay, came reports of pro–Hong Kong democracy protesters on campuses being harassed and attacked. This made Martin reconsider her earlier statement, though she still thinks “it’s a very tiny minority of Chinese students who are involved in such incidents.”

Mary doesn’t rule out the possibility that there may be Chinese spies on campus, watching people like her who express independent views. She would speak freely in a class where she knew the individuals, she said, but would be more careful in an open forum. On the other hand, she had seen students question lecturers in class, including on topics to do with China — but they were taking part in class discussions, not trying to close them down. And, she asked, wasn’t that an example of freedom of speech? Wasn’t that something we encouraged? Or were only certain kinds of free speech encouraged?

Meanwhile, Mary has asked the Australian journalists she works with whether they feel they are objective about China. Why do they always cast it as a threat? They tell her they are just writing the facts.

“What do you think?” I ask.

She shrugs and smiles. “I am still trying to find out that answer,” she says.

For Chinese students, it is comparatively easy to get into a top Australian university for graduate study. Unlike the gruelling selection system in China, there are no entrance exams apart from the English-language test. Applicants for entry to Australian universities are assessed entirely on the scores from their undergraduate degree. For many, it comes as a shock to discover that, despite having paid top dollar, there is no guarantee they won’t fail. In China, getting in is hard, but once accepted, graduating is virtually guaranteed. Failed assignments can always be resubmitted. Exams can be resat.

The other issue is English-language standards. This is the most frequent cause of discussion, and complaint, in the staffrooms of universities. Too often, Chinese students clearly lack the English-language skills to profit from their education. And this, of course, causes the pressures that underlie the contract cheating business.

Education researcher Andrew Norton says it is common knowledge among everyone who teaches Chinese students that there is a problem with English-language skills, but it is one of the most profound areas of lack of data. “Is it 20 per cent, 30 per cent, 40 per cent or 90 per cent of students?” he says. “We just don’t have the data.” Why not? He suggests it is because nobody wants to know the answer.

This is just one example of a lack of data in the international education business. Sometimes, one suspects it is because nobody has an interest in filling the gaps. It is hard to imagine any other export business that would tolerate such a deficiency in key information.

Mary is no passive consumer of her country’s propaganda, but nor is she becoming more wedded to an Australian identity. Her generation, she says, is proud that China is growing in influence and power. Migration to the West is seen as part of China’s rise, the taking of its place as an international power. It’s an attitude full of contradictions — an attraction to Australia because it offers a better life, but also a cleaving to the home country and its strategic priorities.

“We might criticise our government and president Xi Jinping. But when we are in Australia and we hear other people criticise, naturally we want to defend,” says Mary. She and her friends aspire to the option of life in Australia but “unlike the Greeks or the Italians, we see ourselves as different. We will always be Chinese Australians.”

I gave a guest lecture recently to students visiting from a prestigious Chinese university. There was plenty of discussion afterwards, including about the things these students had heard about China while in Australia. Their visit coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a topic banned in China. Some had watched the ABC’s Four Corners special on the subject. They were also following the Australian news reports on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations.

One of the students argued that it was inevitable China would gradually become more democratic. Others thought it unlikely. One spoke up against Xi Jinping and his removal of presidential term limits. “We have a new emperor now,” she said. None of the students seemed to fear speaking out in front of their fellows.

Finally, one of the women, who was perhaps eighteen years old, told me she had read on Chinese social media that the Hong Kong protesters had been encouraged and financed by hostile foreign powers, but she had seen no mention of this in the Australian media.

“Do you believe it?” I asked. “I don’t know what to believe,” she said. As she spoke, she looked, for a moment, as though she was in physical pain. Then she looked profoundly sad. The journalist in me thought, self-servingly, that this is the anguish of insufficient access to reliable information — that this is why journalism is important. The teacher in me, and perhaps the mother, worried about her obvious distress. What were we doing to her, and to all these young people, exposing them to so many contradictions, so much to process and think through, with no way and no licence to reach out and give a supporting hand when they return home?

It’s nice to think that perhaps it is not too late to do better. The huge numbers of international students are unprecedented in the history of Australian tertiary education. We are educating swathes of the Chinese middle class at a time of geopolitical tension. There are such opportunities here, such important potential outcomes.

Academics could be trained in cross-cultural skills. Universities could invest more in welcoming student cohorts and supporting their integration with the domestic body. We could learn from our students, coming to better understand the Chinese point of view. Rather than bemoaning their impact on the way we teach, we could make a more genuine attempt to reach our students, to truly educate.

But all that would take investment, including by taxpayers, and wisdom. It would mean seeing foreign students not only as dollar signs, and education not only as a business. It would mean being willing to seize the opportunity that resides in young people, in human engagement. Is it too late for this kind of strategic vision? •


This is an edited extract from Margaret Simons’s essay, “High Price: Inside the Chinese Student Boom,” published in Australian Foreign Affairs 7 — China Dependence, out now.