Pop-ular culture: Why Chinese students are getting creative

Chinese students have long been drawn to to the UK to study management and science. But now they want to get creative

By Lucy Hodges
Thursday 08 January 2009 01:00

Xipojing Min, 21, is typical of the new breed of Chinese student coming to Britain: she is studying film and TV studies, and not the usual business or IT course beloved of old.

A Masters student at the University of Warwick, she had no interest in signing up for a degree in what are traditionally seen as the vocational subjects of science or management, though she is definitely interested in getting a job when she graduates. At Warwick, she is learning about the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, and experiencing British culture, including receiving a fast induction into pub culture and English food. "I like fish and chips," she says.

Her experience reflects the changing zeitgeist in China, highlighted in a new study by the British Council, published today. Media studies and the creative arts are becoming increasingly popular among overseas students, especially in China, according to the survey of 70,000 prospective students in 201 countries.

This trend is being driven by huge changes in the People's Republic, where popular culture is exploding and new pop stars and artists are being discovered by the day. That means young people are spending more time than they used to as consumers of newspapers, magazines, films and television. Media and the arts are now viewed as trendy in China and are growth industries.

"The country is changing rapidly," says Jazreel Goh, education marketing director for the British Council in Beijing. "Because of the one-child policy, we have all these young people who have received enormous attention from their parents. They are keen to express themselves and are interested in courses where they can perform and realise their creativity. They see that a lot of pop idols and artists have been succeeding and they want to do the same."

But Chinese people find it difficult to study media and the arts in their own country because these subjects are relatively undeveloped in Chinese higher education, which is where British universities come in. Young Chinese students are dreaming of signing up for courses in British higher education not just because we provide programmes that their country doesn't but also because they are interested in British culture, fashion music and film, according to the British Council.

Chinese students hope to become artists, creative directors, journalists and TV programme managers – maybe back home but maybe also in the West. Xipojing is hoping to get a job at the end of her course in the UK.

"I would like to find a job here in England for a year because I don't want to head back to China straightaway," she says. "I will try to find work at a magazine or an independent film production company."

The new snapshot of Chinese students is highlighted in a British Council survey that questioned prospective students thinking of coming to Britain from all over the world. The study shows that a high proportion of them are seeking a better quality of education. For those from certain countries such as Nigeria, this is still a top priority. Many students, particularly those from India and Germany, also want to improve their job prospects.

When they choose which country to study in, students of all nationalities view quality of education as the most important factor, followed by the prospect of gaining a highly regarded degree. Career prospects and the reputation of universities in that country are also rated highly.

Contrary to received wisdom, tuition fees and the cost of living are ranked very low. And the ease of obtaining a visa is considered to be the least important factor of all. Parents don't hold much sway over most students' choice of where to study, according to the survey, but they are still the main source of funding for most aspiring international students. Instead, the vast majority of students do their own research, mainly on the internet.

The internet is the number-one source of information for young people, particularly in China, according to Pat Killingley, the British Council's director of higher education. China is a country with one of the biggest internet populations in the world, and it is where young people learn about what is going on in the world.

"They are seeing what is possible," says Killingley. "The internet is opening up new horizons to people thinking about their education. They are looking at new media and new technologies, at subjects that are seen as hip and trendy. It is almost a social transition that the youth of China is going through."

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