Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Big Fees, Little English

As part of our education series comes an article in Education Guardian that lifts the lid on the practice of taking Chinese overseas students with sub-standard English qualifications.

This article is also interesting for the fact that the writer of the article, Victoria Adams, is a pseudonym. The writer teaches in a Chinese University.

The issue here is an important one. Students for fail to get pass their English listening can still get onto a UK course. The key here is that this is NOT possible at the top UK Universities that stick to STRICT guidelines (IELTS 6.5-7.5 usually).

The most interesting aspect is that the very best students will go to DOMESTIC Chinese Universities. The second string students, instead of going to second rated domestic Universities are sent abroad. The best UK Universities are therefore not getting the best Chinese students.

This quote shows the extent of the perceived problem:

Chinese students who cannot listen, speak or write after around eight years of formal English lessons may well still find themselves on their way to Britain.

The article concludes:

The more China prospers, the more students will come to UK universities. Yet, in the current system, the British universities that keep their China links to a minimum will almost certainly be the ones that prioritise quality over cash cows.

Full article here.

Holy Cash Cow [Guardian]

Picture this: a top 30 university in China is just completing its mid-term exam week in its "international programme" for students preparing for degree courses in the UK. The results are not good. In the listening skills exam, for example, only four out of 54 students in two classes managed to pass. Is this a crisis? Are the student dreams of education in England fading away? Perhaps that should be the case, but it isn't.

That pitiful standard is typical for thousands of Chinese students heading for university in a city centre near you. These students may not be able to understand lectures; they may not be able to write a grammatical sentence or answer questions. But they can contribute something that keeps the door to the UK open: they can subsidise new British universities ranked outside the top 60 and thus keep fees for British students at a lower level. Their financial contribution is significant. Thousands of students across China take these Sino-UK courses every year, run by dozens of Chinese schools and universities.

Demand for places

Most Russell group universities and many others in the top 50 protect themselves to a certain extent. They insist on a high score from the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) - a level 7 or 7.5 - as part of the admission criteria. Demand for places at these universities, which have the best reputations, is such that they can afford to remain more discriminating. But, sadly, other universities are very willing to accept IELTS 6, thus welcoming students who may struggle to do well on courses.

The huge rise in China's middle class provides the context for this impact on the UK education system. At China's end, this is what happens: every summer, the country runs its national university entrance exam. Most high-school students who do well in the maths, Chinese, English and science tests taken by millions, will go to a respected domestic university. But not everyone can get into a well-regarded establishment such as Beijing University or Qinghua University.

So what is the best option for those children of managers, local and central government officials and entrepreneurs who don't get in? Putting your offspring into those considered to be second-string Chinese universities would involve a loss of face. Better, then, to stump up the cash to ship them off abroad. The top 30 Chinese universities might not let these students join the ranks of their normal intake, but they will accept the students' money and offer a place in a private school they run that has an international link with a British university.

Since the late 1990s, the numbers of Chinese students coming for undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the UK has ballooned. The problem early on in this trend was that 40% of Chinese students were failing their British exams. Something had to be done to keep the reputation of the British university system high within China, and so followed the establishment of "international foundation programmes", designed to act as a transition between the Chinese education system and ours. In these programmes, Chinese students are expected to learn to listen, work in teams, contribute their ideas in class discussions, analyse texts and write in paragraphs.

These programmes, on the surface, are an excellent idea. The pre-masters course run by the Northern Consortium of British universities has its strengths in training areas such as research methods and presentations skills. However, as these programmes have proliferated, the standards have not been maintained. In the mid-term exam on one programme in China, a business teacher said that in one of his classes, 75% of students failed. There is an unwillingness to grapple with the problem. This particular Chinese university initially stated that students who missed three classes before the mid-term exam would be excluded from the test; it didn't happen. Staff say that sent a message to the other students that they, too, could stay up till 3am, miss class and face no consequences.

Grey hairs

The mid-term exam results will add a few grey hairs to the heads of frustrated foreign teachers on these international programmes. However, there are many vested interests in making sure the system continues and that those who fail are rescued. Chinese students who cannot listen, speak or write after around eight years of formal English lessons may well still find themselves on their way to Britain. Their inability to do well means more students for British university pre-sessional courses from June to September. These charge thousands of pounds - a nice little top-up for British universities already charging £10,000-£15,000 for tuition fees for the actual course.

British universities boast on their websites about links with Chinese counterparts. They rarely highlight the mismatch between expectations and results on both sides. Nor is there a focus on why those links exist. It is not to diversify student intake, in most cases. The links are, as one teacher ruefully says, about "cash flow".

It seems that, whether or not the international programme is good, the teachers and programme organisers face exactly the same issues: unmotivated students and pressures from British universities to increase the numbers taking up places. Unsurprisingly, some students on some programmes realise low-ranking UK universities are desperate to have them, so they have even less reason to raise their game.

The more China prospers, the more students will come to UK universities. Yet, in the current system, the British universities that keep their China links to a minimum will almost certainly be the ones that prioritise quality over cash cows.



Potential Customer said...

This is a rather simple problem to solve. All UK university needs to do is to create some special degree programs that are adjusted to reflect the actual situation in China, suitable for the current Chinese condition, with Chinese characteristics, and labelled adequately for others to know they these are special. A B. Sc. for Finance in the Chinese Economy, A B.A. for Chinese Economics, etc. would be extremely marketable.

ChinaEconomist said...

Thanks for the comment - it has made me think hard on this. Your suggestion suffers from two mjor flaws.

(1) Chinese students want a quality product and often they prefer to be on courses with fewer rather than more Chinese students.

(2) The top UK Universities provide a high qulaity product. Any hint that these new courses are in some way "simplified" or of a lower quality would hurt the University's brand.

However, it remains an good idea. It would be an interesting experiment. The question is how marketable these courses would really be and whether employers back in China would see this as a desirable degree relative to a standard Economics or Finance course.