In China if you meet a foreign student pursuing a programme taught in Chinese and ask them about their studies, the likely response you will get is one that tells you theirs is a sad story worth listening to. You will be told of the frustration and the stress that the students suffer due to their failure to understand lectures, not because of the difficulty of the concepts presented – well they could be – but because the students’ competence in Chinese language is too basic for university studies. Why is this so?
Foreign students admitted into programmes taught in Chinese are put on a one academic year Chinese language training programme before they start their respective specialties. Theoretically, this is aimed at preparing the students for their various degree programmes. However, at a practical level, it is irrefutable that this training does not achieve much beyond equipping the students with language skills for communication on the street. At the end of the one year, the students’ language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing - are just too weak to handle academic tasks and demands. Consequently, the students go for lectures simply to register their presence, not necessarily to get the content presented by the professors.
Post graduate students are better off – they already acquired independent study and research skills when they did their first degrees. Such skills sustain them. However, undergraduates, fresh from high school, therefore with no such skills, are a cause for worry as most of them literary have no idea of how to study independently and meaningfully.
In order to survive academically, most foreign students ask their professors to give them soft copies of the lecturers’ teaching notes which, using online translators, the students later translate into languages they are competent in so as to get a sense of the ground covered in class. This gives them some direction on what they can read in English books for some in-depth study. That process in itself can be tedious, cumbersome and a headache but at least it keeps alive the students’ hopes of getting their degrees.
The students are not always that lucky, though. Some lecturers refuse to give students their lecture notes. The professors are not obliged to do so anyway. Others deliver their material without any soft copies, which only complicates matters for the foreign students. However, at the end of their stipulated study period, the students return to their respective countries with papers– they are university graduates.
Examined critically, this raises a serious question about the quality of graduates the foreign students turn out to be as they return to their countries. One can theorise, without fear of contradiction, that such graduates return to their countries ill equipped for the professional challenges that their studies are supposedly meant to prepare them for. Or they are equipped, but not as fully as their Chinese classmates.
In quantitative terms, the countries where such students come from experience an increase in the number of graduates in different fields. In qualitative terms, however, it is doubtful that the numbers have significant value in terms of the graduates’ productivity as their countries’ human capital. Put simply, such graduates cannot be assets for the development of their countries.
Of course understanding all lectures does not automatically guarantee high quality graduates but it makes a difference in terms of how much knowledge the student acquires at the end of his or her studies. The foreign students’ potential failure to deliver in their countries has implications that should not be ignored. If not checked, the situation could tempt countries that send their students to China to have not-so-positive a view about Chinese education. I believe that this calls for a well thought-through action by those responsible for the admission of foreign students into university programmes taught in Chinese. There is need for a proper analysis of the problem and find solutions.
One obvious area is the duration of the Chinese language training programme. In view of the complexity of Chinese language, two or three years of extensive language training seem a realistic solution to equip the students with adequate linguistic skills for university studies. The first year could help the students acquire skills for every day communication. Then language courses designed to equip the students with specialised language for their areas of studies could follow.
Obviously, this implies a prolonged stay in university for the students but when examined against the long term returns, it is worth it. By offering to provide education to people from other nations, especially those from the third world, China demonstrates its commitment to sharing development with the rest of the world, hence the need for a deliberate action to ensure that foreign students get the most from their studies in order to graduate as valuable assets for their countries. Maybe it is time for heads to roll.