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Students of Mandarin: Dare to take the plunge

This article originally appeared in the December edition of China Matters’  YP Stance.

Chinese international students in Australian universities have come under the spotlight in recent months. This is not surprising; there are more than 131,000 university students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Australia, accounting for almost 40 per cent of all international students in the higher education sector.

At the same time, student mobility from Australia to the PRC is almost completely absent from public discussion. The numbers are stark: there are 4,796 Australian students in the PRC, or just over one per cent of international students there. Furthermore, while the total number of Australians studying in the PRC has increased, the majority stay for less than six months.

In order to improve Australians’ grasp of Chinese language and understanding of the PRC’s influence in our region, students need to be spending more time in the PRC and enrol in Chinese- rather than English-taught programs. To facilitate this, both the tertiary education sector and the federal government should provide greater incentives for students to take part in these longer programs.

Research by the Australian Department of Education shows that the PRC is the second most popular destination for Australian university exchange and study abroad students. Additionally, while the numbers have fluctuated over recent years, there has generally been an upward trajectory (see figure 1).

Figure 1

However, the number of students in longer programs has stagnated (see figure 2). According to the most recent data from the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of Australians studying in the PRC in 2016, 69 per cent stayed less than six months.

Figure 2

There are several problems with shorter-term stays. Most participants in short-term Chinese language immersion programs engage more on a day-to-day basis with their foreign classmates than with local Chinese students. Chinese universities usually offer separate accommodation for international students. Thus, while the classroom experience might be immersive, the social environment outside the classroom often dilutes linguistic and cultural engagement.

The abundance of English-taught programs exacerbates this. Peking and Tsinghua universities have introduced the prestigious Yenching and Schwarzman Scholars programs respectively, which have no Chinese proficiency requirement. Some programs explicitly forbid enrolment of PRC nationals, eradicating the possibility of interaction with Chinese students in the classroom, and in turn the possibility of an authentic experience.

Longer stays offer profound benefits. The more time spent overseas, the greater the degree of language immersion and fluency. This is sorely needed in Australia. 2016 Census data show that while Mandarin Chinese is the second most commonly spoken household language in Australia (2.5 per cent) an overwhelming majority of households (72.7 per cent) speak only English. This leaves a huge knowledge deficit, demonstrated by the employment demand for bilingual speakers. Earlier this year, Tim Mayfield, Executive Director of Asialink’s Asia Education Foundation argued, ‘A good strategy [to fill this gap] is to start incorporating native Mandarin speakers in top companies using those bilingual skills’. However, reliance on native speakers will  not reduce the knowledge deficit. As Jane Orton has pointed out, ‘[I]t may often be the native English speakers who are seeking information or connection that is vital to them. Relying only on what people can or choose to tell them in English … leaves English speakers in a passive position’.

Longer stays also facilitate lasting professional and interpersonal relationships, of particular importance in the PRC.

With this in mind, universities can play a role by providing greater incentives and more opportunities for undergraduate students to undertake longer and Chinese-taught programs, especially for those majoring in Chinese Studies or related disciplines. Further incentives could include giving priority to scholarship applicants enrolling in longer programs, and integrating a compulsory year-long exchange into competitive undergraduate language-focused degrees. The Australian National University’s ‘Year in Asia’ program is an example of the latter. More credit points could be offered for Chinese-taught subjects. Other actions could include reviewing existing exchange agreements and negotiating extensions; and surveying students to ascertain the reasons behind their preference for short-term programs, in order to develop initiatives to address the key challenges.

On the government’s part, the New Colombo Plan could prioritise proposed programs over six months in length, which would in turn incentivise universities to develop creative and rewarding programs for more immersive China experiences.

Universities also have a role in empowering students to make informed choices about their studies, both during their tenure and beyond. This includes raising awareness of alternative sources of funding, such as the PRC’s China Scholarship Council (CSC). The CSC offers a comprehensive suite of scholarships for Chinese-taught degree programs, at the municipal, regional and national levels. Individual PRC universities also run their own scholarship programs.

Chinese-taught programs not only offer a more immersive language experience – by completing assignments, presentations and theses in Mandarin, one’s Chinese is guaranteed to improve exponentially – but also give the student invaluable insights into the PRC’s education system, politics, media and society. These are all valuable skills for Australia’s future. China scholars should consider the benefits of witnessing developments first hand; these insights are not attainable at arm’s length. While living in the safety net of one’s native language and among a familiar community might be tempting, it makes for superficial engagement.

天天向上

我去年大概这个时候北大硕士毕业,离开北京。在一年的时间内能写完四万字的中文毕业论文并通过答辩,到现在是让我最自豪的成就。当然,写论文不容易;熬了很多夜,修了很多次,但最后的感觉真是苦尽甘来。

北大未名湖。笔者摄影。
北大未名湖。笔者摄影。

答辩通过那天乐不可支,与此同时有点舍不得,因为知道这标志着两年的功夫结束了,北大的时光一去不复返。

最近重新读毕业论文,那种自豪的感觉有所变化了。

读完了以后其实有点失望。以前以为自己写得不错,学术水平挺高的。用外语写这么厚的作品已经是很大的成就;当时觉得无论内容好不好,能用学术语言表达清楚是最重要的。这次读发现,虽然语言表达清楚,语病不多,可是结构不太顺利,逻辑上确是有一些问题,大有余地。

这并不否认以前的成绩;实际上,能承认以前的成绩还有进步的余地,有助于促进未来更大的成绩。因此永远不要停止进步 — 不怕慢,只怕站。

在我们成就与缺点的基础上发展,就是我们成长的根源。

How I got into Harvard

For the vast majority of students, attending Harvard is simply an unrealistic, unattainable dream, available only to over-privileged over-achievers. Most successful applicants attend elite schools, and spend years being coached and preparing for admission.

I have never travelled to the United States. I have therefore never had the opportunity to set foot on Harvard’s prestigious campus.

But I am a graduate of Harvard.

harvard blog 3
Harvard Hall, 1878.

For the past seven weeks, I took part in the course Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press, offered by the John F. Kennedy School of Government. The course was taught by the renowned Professor Graham Allison, and the New York Times‘ chief Washington correspondent, David Sanger. As you would expect from any university course, there were weekly lectures, quizzes and assignments.

But there were many things that made this course unique.

It was run by edX; there were no exorbitant fees. It was open to anyone anywhere around the world armed with an internet connection and the interest and will to learn.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the limited enrolment version of the course, which gave me the additional opportunities of participating in weekly tutorials and receiving written feedback on my assignments. The course remained free.

Many people lament increasing anti-social behaviour that has resulted from ubiquitous portable devices and social media. Some studies have even argued that the internet is making us stupid. In many cases, this is true. However, I believe the internet also offers unprecedented potential for the future of education. I have always been a strong supporter of scholarship beyond the classroom: our learning never stops, and our instruments of learning should reflect the advances in technology that we have achieved. It is up to us to use this technology to become smarter and better-informed.

Every year, edX and Coursera offer hundreds of Massive Open Online Courses (more commonly known as MOOCs) in subjects as varied as Software Engineering, Music Theory, Astronomy, Economics, and Neuroscience. They have partnered with Ivy League universities including Harvard, MIT and Berkeley, as well as some lesser-known schools such as the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology, Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands), and Koç University (Turkey). Furthermore, not all courses are offered exclusively in English, so speakers of Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and other languages also have access to MOOCs.

With these initiatives, it is possible to pursue knowledge and interests while undertaking full-time employment or study. If you have ever wanted to learn about something new, extend your existing knowledge, or simply qualify your opinions, but have not been in the position to relocate, or have not had the time or money, you really no longer have an excuse.

You, too, can get into Harvard.