More efforts are needed to attract and support international students

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Anwar Ali (2nd L) poses for a group photo with researchers at the Institute of Vegetables and Flowers at Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Jinan, Shandong Province, on January 7. Ali began his post-doctoral research at the institute in 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

Between the ages of 25 and 30, Alane spent most of his time in China. From 2016 to 2020, he learned Chinese and majored in international relations at China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU) in Beijing. It wasn't easy to access this opportunity. The scholarship program was co-launched by the governments of China and his home country, Guinea. In order to be chosen, Alane had to pass an exam. Of the 36 applicants for the only program, only six were selected. 

When he talked to Beijing Review about his time undertaking the program, he said what impressed him most were the great professors and considerate Chinese friends. He also took great pride in becoming the top goalscorer in the university's football matches. After receiving a master's degree, Alane decided to return to Guinea to continue working for the government.

Alane said in fluent Chinese that studying and living in China is a beautiful memory and that he hopes to return one day. Working for his country's embassy in Beijing is currently his dream job.

Recent years have seen increasing numbers of overseas students attracted to Chinese universities, a sign of the increasing openness of the Chinese education system. However, compared to major recipients of international students such as the U.S. and UK, China's higher education system has a long way to go.

Gathering the best 

"In the era of globalization, national governments compete for talented professionals with good educational backgrounds and experience. In addition, they also turn to international students," Mabel Lu Miao, Secretary General of the Beijing-based think tank Center for China and Globalization (CCG), said at the launch of the book International Students in China and Their Career Development, held virtually on May 25. The book was authored by Miao and her colleagues at CCG. "International students generally have broad worldviews and a high degree of competence in cross-cultural communication, and they also bring connections with their home countries," she continued. 

Most popular destinations for international students have established quantitative goals. For example, in 2019, Britain announced that it planned to host 600,000 international students by 2030, a goal it reached recently and far ahead of its projected timeline. According to reports, UK higher education providers admitted 605,130 students from other countries in the 2020/21 academic year. In 2014, Canada unveiled a program to lift the number of international students and researchers in the country to 450,000 by 2022, and that figure was reached in 2017.

In 2010, the Ministry of Education announced its plan to increase the number of international students in China to 500,000 by 2020. The goal was nearly accomplished in 2018, when more than 492,000 students from 196 countries studied at 1,004 universities and colleges, scientific research institutes, and other educational agencies across the country. Nevertheless, during that same year, approximately 1.5 million Chinese students were studying abroad.

Although official statistics show China is already the third most popular destination for international students worldwide and Asia's top country for overseas study, the country still sees net student outflows. And the deficit has grown since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Miao.

During the initial spread of the pandemic, countries faced similar difficulties and setbacks in attracting foreign students due to the interruptions to international travel. "However, that situation began to change in 2021," Zhai Jinming, an official with China Education Association for International Exchange said during the book launch. "Even though we have been working to create the necessary conditions to facilitate the return of foreign students to China, some of them have chosen not to come back, with a major concern being the need to quarantine at their own expense on entry. Additionally, some students choosing between studying in China and other countries may go elsewhere due to their unwillingness to live under the zero-COVID-19 policy." However, characterized by prompt action in cutting off community transmission chains and precise identification of sources of infections, the Chinese approach has proven cost-effective and suitable to its situation. 

Zhai added that the impact of the pandemic on China's international education will be short, and the number of foreign students studying in the country is expected to increase rapidly once travel and life return to normal.

The way forward 

2022 marks Andy Boreham's 10th year living in China. Coming from Wellington in New Zealand, Boreham now speaks very fluent Chinese. After graduating from Fudan University in Shanghai, one of China's top higher learning institutions, he chose to stay and work in the city and later landed a job as a columnist and reporter at Shanghai Daily, an English-language newspaper. He has been very active on multiple social media platforms including Twitter and WeChat to share his life in China. To him, China is a second home.

However, few international students in China stay and work as Boreham has. "Attracting more international students to study in China is important, but how to inspire them work and live in China is equally critical. China should avoid serving as just a transit point for international students coming here, and should try its best to help the talented people it hosts play to their strengths," Miao said.

"Many international students in China don't have access to internship opportunities and usually know little about related policies on how to start a business while at university," Ahmadzai Abdul Wahed, an entrepreneur from Afghanistan, said during the book launch. Wahed himself was a student of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.

Nevertheless, Wahed also noted that some regions have provided increased support to international students-turned-entrepreneurs in recent years. For example, the government of Chaoyang District of Beijing hosts the Overseas Talent Entrepreneurship Conference (OTEC) every year to help more foreign people living and working in China, international students included, establish businesses. This conference includes the display of outstanding entrepreneurship projects, the launch of talent innovation and entrepreneurship platforms, and seminars with the participation of experts and entrepreneurs.

Wahed has been a beneficiary of these supportive policies. He received the excellent project award during the Global Innovation Week, an activity at OTEC 2020, and later founded the company Wuxiangang Culture and Technology in Chaoyang with the help of local authorities.

"Universities and corporations should collaborate more closely and provide more internship placements for international students, which will help them narrow their skills deficits and get prepared for work," he concluded.

*Due to the nature of his current employment, Alane requested his full name be withheld.

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