Sign up for the revolution

The number of Chinese students studying in the UK is on the increase. This, says Edi Smockum, can only be a good thing

Universities are bracing themselves for a drop in the number of overseas students this year. The combined effect of the War in Iraq and the slowdown in the world economy may curtail the usual influx of young people who hope to study in the United Kingdom. That's important because without overseas students paying higher fees than UK-born students, university finances could come under strain.

However, rising demand from one part of the world - China - looks set to compensate for the decline elsewhere, at least for many establishments. If the Sars virus doesn't prevent this year's Chinese applicants coming to the United Kingdom, the latest Ucas figures suggest applications are up almost 44 per cent from last year. This could result, come the autumn, in Chinese students hitting the country with important - and largely positive - long-term consequences for relations between the two countries, long poisoned by the running sore of Hong Kong.

The growth in the number of Chinese students studying at UK universities has been phenomenal. In 1997 there were fewer than 600 undergraduate students from China; by 2001/02 the number had grown to more than 17,000. And there are plenty more waiting for a chance to study in the UK.

There are three reasons for this growth. First, provision for university places in China is woefully inadequate. According to the British Council, there are more than three million students in China who don't have an immediate place at the tertiary level of education.

Second, with an economy that is booming, the Chinese can now afford premium education. Elite sections of the population are already sending their children to private schools, which can cost upwards of £24,000 per course. In comparison, an overseas university education is not out of reach. What is more, with China's policy of limiting couples to one child, there are often several adults willing to contribute to the cost of educating a single child. Many Chinese students, for example, will have two sets of grandparents and two parents willing to contribute to their education. "A lot of people in China have money in their pocket, and want to spend it on education," according to David Baker of the University of Leeds.

Third, an education in the West is increasingly being seen as a valuable asset. That is partly due to necessity and partly because of changing attitudes. Nick Butler of the British Council says. "The Chinese have always been pragmatic, they know they can't meet the demand and know that the Western expertise that they need will be brought back to China."

Butler also points out that China itself has changed: "It has caught up with the rest of the world. Chinese cities are equally cosmopolitan and equally entrepreneurial." It is not such an issue any more for students to go abroad for education. Butler describes the Council's relations with Chinese officials as "very good". With China entering the World Trade Organisation and increasing its dealings with the rest of the world, work or study in the West has become a valuable asset, and the government is beginning to see the advantage of students understanding how things work in the West.

Universities like Leeds now see Chinese students applying for a greater variety of courses. "At first, many Chinese students came wanting to do business courses, but now we are seeing a diversification into other areas like law and environmental studies," says Baker.

Leeds is one of the universities to have most benefited from soaring Chinese demand. Almost one-quarter of University of Leeds' overseas fee-paying students (non-EU students) are from China. This may partly be due to a chance linguistic advantage: "Leeds" roughly translates to "victory" here in Mandarin. The university has representatives in five Chinese cities and works in partnerships with educational programmes in China, preparing students to come to courses in the UK.

Although the UK still lags behind the United States in attracting students from China, it is gaining ground, thanks in part, to a targeted campaign by both the universities and the British Council. In fact, according to Nick Butler, promoting British universities in China is one of the Council's major activities there. Advertising and marketing campaigns have greatly helped to put the UK into the Chinese mind, according to Butler, and the message that a British education is a quality education has been well received.

In addition, the British Council worked together with the Foreign Office to make it much easier for students to obtain the necessary papers. "It's now more user friendly," says Butler, "we're adopting pro-active approach to dealing with visas. There used to be queues a mile long outside the embassies. Now we can turn a visa around in five days. That's faster than the US, Australia and Canada." For potential students, this is a distinct advantage.

And what about the quality of the students? The University of Leeds has found that academically the students come with good credentials but their level of English is often a problem. Leeds recommends a pre-sessional course in English to bring students up to scratch. Some students find it difficult to adapt to Western study methods.

In China, to challenge a perceived view, including that of a professor, is frowned upon, which doesn't sit well with modern teaching aims in the United Kingdom. And at times, Chinese students can seem a million miles from their British counterparts. Clive Saville, of the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs, says Chinese students often have different expectations of education. Many wonder, for example, why for £10,000 a year they are attending university courses six hours week, rather than six hours a day. In these numbers, the Chinese might yet spawn a revolution.