A new piece in Wall Street Journal discusses how the increasing number of Chinese students at U.S. universities generates discord within them, emanating from cultural shocks, academic dishonesty, and pedagogic challenges. To some degree, all these concerns are legitimate and they reflect a general picture of the shortcomings of the Chinese educational system, which tends to put more emphasis on memorizing materials instead of asking critical and challenging questions.
Still, one also needs to keep in mind that the vast majority of Chinese students at U.S. universities are good quality students and their presence brings multiple benefits to not only the universities, but to U.S. society at large.
First, as many probably would agree, Chinese students at U.S. universities are hard-working, smart, and very good at adapting to U.S. culture. While it is true that many Chinese students experience cultural shocks when they first arrive in the United States, most can quickly adapt to U.S. culture and live comfortably with Americans. Culture shock is a global phenomenon after all, and it also applies to Europeans who come to the United States for graduate study. After an initial period of cultural transition, most Chinese students manage to settle down in the U.S.; some start families and contribute to U.S. society at large. Along with India, Chinese students-turned-engineers are critical to U.S. technological competitiveness in an increasingly fierce global environment.
Second, as is widely reported, Chinese and other international students bring tuition revenues to U.S. universities and create jobs for local businesses around these campuses. The fact that the U.S. has about 4,000 institutions of higher education means that the mere survival of such schools depends, in part, on their abilities to absorb international students. This means not only charging tuition fees, but also providing for international integration in many dimensions.
Third and most importantly, Chinese students at U.S. universities play a positive role in contributing to stable U.S.-China relations. One recent study finds that most Chinese students have a positive image of the United States, including its political system, economic institutions, and environment. Since many of them will return to China as educators and entrepreneurs, the potential influence they have on Chinese society should not be underestimated. It might take some years to observe these effects, but we should not ignore the role of American values in shaping the future of China.
To summarize, the biggest problem facing U.S. universities with Chinese students is that the number of these students is still too low. Only about 300,000 Chinese students are currently studying at U.S. universities. But given the huge capacity of U.S. universities and the vast number of aspiring Chinese students, this number should double at the least. In the meantime, the United States should similarly encourage more American students to study in China, and not just on semester-long exchange programs. At the end of day, people-to-people exchanges and diplomacy, conducted by ordinary Chinese and American individuals, will bring peace and cooperation to this important bilateral relationship.