Why does Australia encourage international — including Chinese — students to study within its borders? Australian universities are about teaching and learning, but they need to be properly resourced to do so, so one reason for encouraging foreign students is the funding they bring to Australian universities. Another more important aspect is the potential to enrich their appreciation for Australia’s way of life, its values and its ethics — which can ultimately enhance Australia’s soft power.
But the way Australia’s system currently functions — churning through thousands of international students each year — is not only missing an opportunity to improve how Australia is seen by the rest of the world, but in some cases is creating negative perceptions of Australia.
Over the past few months, there has been considerable coverage in the Australian media on Chinese students in Australia. So far, with some exceptions, there has been more emphasis on ringing alarm bells than on setting out thoughtful, balanced responses.
There have been reports of Chinese students pressuring their lecturers to avoid particular language around Taiwan; monitoring their peers and reporting inappropriate behaviour to the Chinese authorities; deliberately stifling open debate and discussion; of Chinese officials encouraging Chinese students to actively oppose criticism of the official Party line; and of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association’s ties to the Chinese embassy.
These may well be occurring. But few reports have disaggregated what seems to be becoming understood as ‘the China student problem’ to assess the issues individually, including the extent to which they exist, or the causes. Nor (with exceptions such as Fran Martin and Sun Wanning) have they examined the experiences of Chinese students themselves and how these may be playing into the situation.
There are several reasons that Chinese students’ purported connection with and loyalty to the Chinese Party-state are seen as a cause for concern.
One is that it could diminish the academic experience for all students.
Another is that independent decision-making within universities could be affected. The fear is that ‘irritating’ the Chinese government by not sticking to the Party line may cause it to take measures to decrease the number of students coming to Australia, hitting universities’ funding.
There is also seen to be a risk that Chinese students’ politics could negatively impact the overall Australian political climate.
While these are valid concerns, the current narrative is not adequate in its analysis. The extent to which the political loyalties of Chinese students are the problem is being overstated, and the focus on politics is obscuring the best way to remedy the challenge.
This is not to say that politics is non-existent for Chinese students. Party-state observation and control certainly exists and needs to be addressed. But the Chinese students I spoke to said they felt that students’ behaviour as raised in the Australian press was rarely as simply about politics as it was portrayed.
For them, most of the issues are far more to do with the way in which Australian universities integrate international students into university life. They said they felt that a lack of integration creates feelings of exclusion and isolation, and an unwillingness to make the effort to engage.
There are several aspects to this poor integration, only some of which are outlined here.
One example is a lack of support for understanding how to go about daily life in a new country, such as how to use public transport, open a bank account or get a SIM card. Students tend to resort to asking their compatriots for help.
English-language skills are another factor. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Chinese students still manage to cheat the IELTS English exam.
But even those students who do legitimately pass this test may not have the skills to engage in Australian-style tutorial debates comfortably. One student told me that she finds it extremely frustrating that she cannot fully express her thoughts in class.
The Australian accent and fondness for colloquialisms are additional challenges, compounded by students’ lack of experience in concepts that may not be taught in China. One student said he found tutorials stressful, as he felt he understood less than half of the ideas being discussed, such as human rights or religious influence on culture.
Related to this, rather ironically, is a sense among Chinese students that they cannot freely express their views because their non-Chinese classmates and teachers will dismiss them as being brainwashed.
Despite being told that ‘all views are welcome’, pro-Party views are understood as the exception. One student told me of his friend who received a low grade for an essay in which he argued that the Party is good for China and Chinese people. He was reportedly told that there was no way to make a compelling argument for such a position.
If the Australian university experience is to be successful both as an educational opportunity and as a means for increasing Australia’s soft power with China, it is essential to provide an environment that better integrates Chinese students.
There are a number of means to do so, with some as basic as providing greater assistance in navigating life in a new country and avoiding colloquial language in class.
Universities should also take the time to explain concepts that may be unfamiliar and to ensure that different points of view are respected.
Studying at an Australian university can be a wonderful experience, and for international students, a chance to learn much more than what’s on the formal curriculum. For Australia, hosting international students is, as numerous international scholarship programs such as the New Colombo Plan recognise, an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate Australian values and norms at work. However, it is not enough to bring Chinese students to Australia and expect them to be transformed into supporters of liberal democratic values. There seems to be an assumption that depositing a Chinese person into Australia will automatically convert them into ‘our’ way of thinking.
This is naive and lazy.
If Australia wants to make the most of having Chinese students in its universities, it must do more to ensure Chinese students can make the most of the opportunities they have while there.
Merriden Varrall is the Director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute.
This article first appeared on the Lowy Institute blog on 14 October 2017