Understanding cultural gaps a key to success in China

The economic ascent and sheer size of the Chinese market have placed it top-of-mind in corporate boardrooms as well as meeting rooms in universities and colleges across the world. Everyone wants to know China, to do business in China, to set up partnerships with China. But amid the excitement, a slightly tedious yet important fact may be getting obscured: this is all very new. China’s openness to the rest of the world is but a few years old, and best practices for engaging with China in educational initiatives are just emerging.

This is not at all to discourage student, faculty, and institutional links with China. But there are great cautionary lessons and anecdotes coming to light that prescribe a careful, thorough, patient, and long-term approach when dealing with the Chinese market.

Starting with the good news

Education is a key national priority in China. The government’s investment in improving its education system to the point where it rivals the best in the world and is capable of attracting 500,000 students by 2020 is indisputable.

Moreover, it is looking to leaders and best practices from other countries to guide its progress. For example, a new 80 million yuan (US $12.8 million) five-year programme kicked off just last month for 1,000 presidents and vice-presidents from Chinese universities to visit the US, Britain, Australia, and Germany for leadership training courses.

Since 1998, when then president Jiang Zemin announced that a new Chinese priority would be the massive reform and expansion of the Chinese higher education sector, university enrolment has more than tripled. It has, according to University World News:

“…produced some 6.3 million graduates and some 3,000 institutions. With more than 29 million students, China has the largest higher education enrolment in the world.”

This expansion has happened with the acceptance that foreign universities and programmes would be beneficial in the overall mix of providers, with the result that, as The Economist says, “ … co-operative and exchange programmes in higher education are being announced almost every month.”

Australia, in fact, has just announced that China has overtaken the US as its “biggest knowledge partner”; a new report claims “the number of university agreements between the two countries has leapt almost 75% in less than 10 ten years, rising from 514 to 885.”

Chinese families and students are on board with their government’s passion for education; top-quality education dovetails perfectly with their excitement at the better quality of life to which they can now aspire. Their appetite for foreign-branded education is huge; just watch this short video with a family preparing to send their 14-year-old overseas for an example.

There is little doubt that China is committed to being not only an economic power but a leading knowledge economy as soon as possible.

Bumps along the way

The transition will take some time. Before the 1998 commitment to educational reform, there were but 200,000 annual university graduates in China and virtually none at the graduate level.

The dearth of good educational offerings contributed to a cutthroat and exclusive admissions culture described like this in an excellent article by Jack Cao of the IECA (Independent Education Consultants Association) in China:

“In China, the schools that children eventually get into depends on the political and economic relationships (guanxi) the parents have, not on the ability of the students. That is why children from upper class families have the advantage of entering the top schools from an early age. Officials easily find political connections, and entrepreneurs invest money to open doors of the top schools.”

This culture extends today to attitudes to getting students into elite foreign institutions, says Mr Cao:

“When Chinese parents decide to send their sons or daughters to the US to study, they automatically think that these Chinese practices apply to American school and college admissions as well. They believe in guanxi (relationships) in which they place a high expectation on agents who make exaggerated promises. They believe they can buy admission even if their child is not academically qualified.”

He continues, “A client once asked me if one million dollars (his monthly income) could help his son with poor school grades to get into Princeton. Education, from his point of view, was the same as business. I explained my role and how American admissions works with its emphasis on meritocracy. I lost the client immediately. This happens in China every day; parents are unaware of how American culture differs from Chinese.”

Moreover, once Chinese students are studying in foreign-branded institutions, they bring with them a different set of values, one created by a tradition of memorisation instead of problem-solving or critical thinking skills; a history of having to score extremely high on all-deciding tests; as well as pressure from anxious parents who have sacrificed so much to get them into the academic institutions.

The different values set can come as a shock to faculty teaching in foreign branch campuses in China.

Yale faculty member Stephen Stearns, who was teaching briefly at the Yale-Peking undergraduate university in Beijing (since closed), wrote an open – and well-publicised – letter about his Chinese students before ceasing his teaching duties there. He complained:

“When a student I am teaching steals words and ideas from an author without acknowledgment, I feel cheated. I ask myself, why should I teach people who knowingly deceive me?”

Mr Stearns may have had an unrewarding teaching experience, but he may also not have considered the fact that his students’ behaviour was at least as rooted in a cultural context as in current ethics.

By contrast, Mr Cao provides a far less bleak perspective on the matter in his article, and suggests that with good counselling, attitudes among families and students on how to approach both gaining admission to and studying at university can change:

“My consulting experience convinces me that, increasingly, Chinese families are actually willing to accept ethical counseling and advice for their children. Last month, a mother asked me if I would write the essays for her daughter. I explained that my role was to discuss, brainstorm, and advise, but not to write on her daughter’s behalf. She thought about it and decided that this was what she wanted for her daughter. With this culturally different understanding of ethical advising, all new to her, she became my client. China needs more ethical IECs to advise and educate families.”

Beyond students’ academic values, foreign institutions entering the Chinese market via branch campuses or other partner models have to deal with a political culture that is very different from the one in which they usually operate.

John Aubrey Douglass, writing for University World News, sums up the central challenge as stemming from:

“…the shift from a growing array of ministerial demands and intervention to an internal campus culture that seeks on its own terms to improve the quality of its teaching, research and public service activities.”

Mr Douglass also points out that the shift is underway – but that it will take time:

“Globalisation, including increased interaction with university faculty and leaders in the United States, European Union and elsewhere, is creating a consensus among China’s academic leaders that increased institutional independence, including new levels of academic freedom and improved internally generated quality control, will be necessary for their universities to fully mature. But this will be a slow process, shaped by Chinese societal norms and the still-dominant hand of the national government.”

Slow and steady wins the race

As much as it seems that China has “happened” – it is so big an opportunity and so prominent on everyone’s minds – a more balanced view is that in reality, it is “happening.”

It is in process, and given the newness of China’s educational reforms, we should not be too surprised at branch campuses’ challenges to date in the country or at Chinese students’ different value systems.

Moreover, as pointed out in a fascinating master’s thesis by Lodi Pille called EU universities’ entry models for the Chinese education, submitted to the University of Tartu:

“Although there is great potential in the Chinese higher education market, entry into the market has been difficult for many universities and there is no theoretical model which would give a strong basis for universities’ market entry. The theoretical market entry models for companies have received great attention and have been studied quite often …. However, the company market entry models are not directly applicable to the universities.”

Ms Pille’s general recommendations for education institutions wanting success in partnering with China (based on her case studies of Poland, Finland, and the Netherlands’ educational histories in China) include:

  • A dedicated China expert or team in the main campus;
  • Clear and well communicated admissions and visa policies;
  • A firm commitment to not admitting unqualified students;
  • A policy of keeping faculty informed and participating in internationalisation policies and goals;
  • Long-term institution-wide strategies for internationalisation with China as a main target country;
  • A perspective that student recruitment is only part of internationalisation goals with China – broader partnerships and cooperation is the end goal, as is two-way mobility between the two countries;
  • Adherence to Chinese national policies;
  • Patience.

Specifically, she advises:

  • “Central-level organisation based in China responsible to facilitate the market entry;
  • An active embassy in China to brand the country and open the right doors for national agencies;
  • An alumni network for promotion;
  • The right recruitment agents on the Chinese market;
  • A permanent representative for higher education cooperation in China;
  • A team which can work in terms of relations and not in terms of procedures;
  • Evaluation of the experience in the past and to make plans for the next steps.”

As a recent ICEF Monitor article explored, a commitment to quality is perhaps the overarching consideration for all these strategies.

Opportunities abound

For institutions and education counsellors working to recruit Chinese students, there is ample opportunity to pave the way for a more rewarding and successful study abroad experience.

Institutions should be investing heavily in support staff to help with academic and social transitions – both before students enter and while they are studying.

Clear and non-judgmental materials on expected academic behaviour – as well as ample resources to help support students in getting used to it – seem essential.

And as the article by Mr Cao demonstrates, there is a huge role for ethical counselling as it pertains to preparing students for study in non-Chinese institutions. Mr Cao’s own experience shows that Chinese families are definitely determined to see their children succeed, but also that they are willing to change their perspective on how to achieve this.



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