We must make more ef­fort with Chi­nese stu­dents, say Lena Lan­gosch and Wil­fred Dolf­sma

Western uni­ver­si­ties must work to meet Chi­nese stu­dents’ ex­pec­ta­tions, say Lena Lan­gosch and Wil­fred Dolf­sma

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Lena Lan­gosch is a PhD can­di­date in in­ter­na­tional busi­ness at Lough­bor­ough Univer­sity Lon­don and an as­so­ciate fel­low of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Academy. Wil­fred Dolf­sma is pro­fes­sor of busi­ness man­age­ment and or­gan­i­sa­tion at Wa­genin­gen Univer­sity and Re­searc

The re­liance of Western uni­ver­si­ties on fees from over­seas stu­dents in gen­eral and Chi­nese stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar is well known. Yet while vicechan­cel­lors in coun­tries such as the UK and Aus­tralia fret over any tight­en­ing of visa con­di­tions, they pay sur­pris­ingly lit­tle at­ten­tion to an­other fac­tor that might cause that vi­tal source of in­come to di­min­ish: the in­ter­na­tional stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence.

The fact is that the vast num­bers of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents have not sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered the way Western higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions teach. Aca­demics grudg­ingly ac­knowl­edge that Chi­nese stu­dents, in ef­fect, pay their salaries, and may be in­duced to greet them with a mum­bled ni hao at the start of class. How­ever, such cur­sory ac­com­mo­da­tions of­ten come with a quiet re­sent­ment of Chi­nese stu­dents’ per­ceived in­cli­na­tion to pla­gia­rise and to not par­tic­i­pate in tu­to­rial dis­cus­sions. Aca­demics might also feel that their ped­a­gog­i­cal styles are among the rea­sons that Western uni­ver­si­ties have been so suc­cess­ful his­tor­i­cally, and have ac­quired the pres­tige that in­ter­na­tional stu­dents are lit­er­ally buy­ing into.

Be that as it may, the vast chasm that of­ten ex­ists be­tween Chi­nese stu­dents’ ex­pec­ta­tions of the Western univer­sity ex­pe­ri­ence and its re­al­ity is un­sus­tain­able. In­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion is in­ten­si­fy­ing and China’s own uni­ver­si­ties are rapidly im­prov­ing. Their more sym­pa­thetic teach­ing styles could con­vince high-achiev­ing Chi­nese stu­dents who once might have gone abroad for post­grad­u­ate study to re­main in the coun­try. Other Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties will di­ver­sify, ac­com­mo­dat­ing the stu­dents with lower scores on the na­tional un­der­grad­u­ate en­trance exam, the gao kao, who have tra­di­tion­ally gone West. The rise of xeno­pho­bia in parts of the West may of­fer such in­sti­tu­tions an even more re­cep­tive mar­ket.

An in­ter­na­tional and mul­ti­cul­tural class­room ex­pe­ri­ence does not emerge au­to­mat­i­cally. Cul­ture – the “men­tal pro­gram­ming of the mind that dis­tin­guishes one group of peo­ple from an­other”, as Dutch so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Geert Hof­st­ede puts it – shapes stu­dents’ as well as teach­ers’ be­hav­iour. Western lec­tur­ers ex­pect stu­dents to ini­ti­ate com­mu­ni­ca­tion and to chal­lenge and even con­tra­dict their tu­tors. But such ap­proaches are only fea­si­ble in so­ci­eties where what Hof­st­ede calls “power dis­tance” is low.

Ac­cord­ing to the cross-cul­tural training or­gan­i­sa­tion Hof­st­ede In­sights, Europe scores 35 (out of 100) on power dis­tance, while China scores 80. No amount of ni haos at the start of lec­tures will, by them­selves, bridge this chasm. In China, in­equal­i­ties be­tween in­di­vid­u­als are ac­cepted and there is a com­mon view that peo­ple should not try to move be­yond their rank. Hence, stu­dents ex­pect lec­tur­ers to out­line the learn­ing path to ex­cel­lence, and only speak up when in­vited to show their skills. Even then, they will not con­tra­dict, let alone pub­licly crit­i­cise, the lec­turer.

The re­sult­ing si­lence in class is viewed by Western lec­tur­ers as prob­lem­atic. But it need not re­main unbroken through­out term if lec­tur­ers take the trou­ble to build a re­la­tion­ship with their Chi­nese stu­dents, creat­ing a safe en­vi­ron­ment for them to speak up and im­press­ing upon them the ed­u­ca­tional ben­e­fits of do­ing so.

Power dis­tance, com­bined with the Con­fu­cian rev­er­ence for the wise sage, also helps ac­count for pla­gia­rism. While West­ern­ers de­cry the “theft” of some­one else’s ideas or lan­guage, Chi­nese stu­dents re­gard the use of some­one else’s work as a mark of re­spect. And pre­cisely dis­tin­guish­ing your own con­tri­bu­tion from that of the sage com­mits the Eastern sin of break­ing up the col­lec­tive.

Such cul­tural in­sights will hardly come as a rev­e­la­tion: they have been pointed out many times. But that only makes it more puz­zling that so lit­tle is done to act on them. If uni­ver­si­ties want to crack down on pla­gia­rism, for in­stance, they should do more to set out their very dif­fer­ent ap­proach, and to ex­plain its ra­tio­nale.

Western val­ues and be­liefs are not self-ev­i­dently cor­rect, and in a con­fronta­tional age there may be some­thing to be said for a more com­mu­nal ap­proach to learn­ing. But what­ever aca­demics’ views on the mer­its of hav­ing dif­fer­ent cul­tural per­spec­tives in their class­rooms, it is vi­tal that they ac­com­mo­date them.

The chasm that ex­ists be­tween Chi­nese stu­dents’ ex­pec­ta­tions of the Western univer­sity ex­pe­ri­ence and its re­al­ity is un­sus­tain­able

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