The Straits Times (Singapore): Uni Sector Rides on Economic Boom

September 10, 2012



(From left) Mr Alex Worker from New Zealand, Mr Zech Lung from Singapore, Mr Timothy Mak from the US, and Mr Russ Neu from Singapore are among China*s foreign student population at Tsinghua University. The country is aiming to have 500,000 foreign students by 2020. ST PHOTO: HO AI LI

The news story was originally published in The Straits Times (Singapore) on September 5, 2012. Several Tsinghua-MIT International MBA students talked about their life at Tsinghua in China.

BEIJING 每 Ah, the start of autumn, and the cafes and restaurants in Beijing*s university district of Haidian are lively again as the new term starts.

Listen carefully and you may find that some of the chatter is in Korean, English or even Thai.

As China*s influence on the world*s stage rises, more people are heading to its shores to pick up Chinese or even degrees.

Foreign student numbers grew 10 per cent to 290,000 last year compared with a year before.

It is a trend that China, with an eye to becoming Asia*s education hub, hopes to spur with more scholarships and having courses taught in English. By 2020, it aims to have 500,000 foreign students.

Most foreign students in China hail from South Korea, then the United States and Japan. Asean countries Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia also figure in the top 10, together with Russia and Kaza khstan as well as India and Pakistan.

More Singaporeans are also studying in China. Beijing alone has at least 80 Singaporeans doing bachelor*s or master*s courses, noted Ms. Valerie Ang, who heads the Singapore Students* Association (Beijing).

Each year, there are 15 to 20 new degree students in Beijing, whereas this had been below 10 before 2009, she added.

※China, just because it is China 每 a large, major economy, where things are happening 每 will inevitably be a destination for international students,§ noted Professor Philip Altbach, an education ex-pert from Boston College.

It did not take much to per-suade Hungarian postgraduate student Fanni Zentai, 24, to come to Beijing for an exchange program. She heard the city was a vibrant place, and China is ※economically relevant§ too, she said.

Canadian Lucas van Lierop, 23, even thinks it is helpful to be able to sing in Mandarin. He is on a summer program for opera and musical singers from abroad.

※I have the opportunity to do two things I love: learn a new language and learn to sing,§ he said.

Six in 10 foreign students are here to learn the language; the rest are seeking degrees.

Take Mr. Alex Worker, 27, from New Zealand, for instance.

He picked Beijing*s Tsinghua University over French school Insead*s campus in Singapore to do a master*s in business administration (MBA).

※I quickly realized that Insead was not going to give me the in-sights into China that I was looking for,§ he said, adding that he hoped to gain business experience ※on the ground§ in China.

Besides building networks with the locals, one also learns to adapt

Singaporean Kelly Heng, 33, said working on projects with Chinese students has helped prepare her for working here next time.

※My ability to deal with ambiguity and change has improved. This is useful, given the fast-changing market environment, and is needed in China where things are not always as clear as you wish,§ said the Tsinghua MBA student.

Besides China*s appeal as a land of opportunities, its universities are also doing more to attract foreign students, with more courses taught in English.

Beijing*s University of International Business and Economics, for one, has started a range of courses taught in English, from bachelor*s degrees to doctorates. It has nearly 3,000 foreign students, a fifth of its total, and ranks in the top five nationwide for its foreign student population. The local authorities are also swinging into action. Shanghai officials, for instance, have been encouraging foreign brand-name schools like New York University to set up branch campuses.

Still, observers say, China is no rival to the likes of the US or Britain, whose universities usually dominate global league tables.

Students also see classes at Chinese universities as a tad too theory-based and didactic, compared with those elsewhere.

Chinese higher education is generally not very highly rated, said Dr. Rahul Choudaha of the New York-based World Education Services, which does re-search on student mobility. Some may even link it to ※low-cost manufacturing goods§, he added.

But this could change. As Prof Altbach notes: ※China is improving and many of its program compare well with mid-range universities in Western countries.§

While a Chinese education is still a bit of a gamble, it is a good way of understanding the Chinese better 每 and a good investment 每 said Mr. Worker.

※It*s a well-informed punt,§ he said of his MBA course. ※The degree*s under-valued today but won*t be 10 years later.§