A reader called my attention to this Wall Street Journal article, titled “Heavy Recruitment of Chinese Students Sows Discord on U.S. Campuses.” My wife, a Chinese immigrant, also mentioned it to me.
The concerns described by the article are not new: Lack of mixing of the Chinese students with the Americans (more of a problem with the Chinese than with the other international students); lack of analytical skills; pressure felt by some professors to lower standards in order to accommodate; and so on. But the sheer volume of students from China today is really putting all this under the spotlight.
As many readers of this blog know, although I strongly support facilitating the immigration of the world’s “best and brightest,” I am strongly opposed to the “Staple a Green Card to Their Diplomas” proposals, which would give automatic green cards to all foreign students earning STEM Master’s or PhD degrees at U.S. universities. This WSJ article, on which I will comment below, illustrates why “Staple” is a bad idea.
As the article points out, universities, both public and private, are under great pressure to treat foreign students as cash cows, for instance because some schools charge them higher tuition than for domestic students. It should be abundantly clear that this will necessarily cause a lowering of standards, something usually whispered but here discussed openly by a major newspaper. I was told by a colleague at a mid-level university just yesterday that her Computer Science Department has 400 (!) international students in its Master’s program. Since China leads all nations in the number of foreign students in the U.S., the article is even more relevant to the “Staple” issue.
We do have some “best and brightest”-class students from China. Whenever I teach a graduate class, there is typically at least one Chinese student among the top two or three students. I actively help top foreign students find jobs in Silicon Valley. But most of my Chinese students struggle in my class, for the reason cited in the article, profound weakness in analytical skills.
This in turn is due to a lack of development of these skills in China. With a rote-memory educational system and an age-old culture that does not question authority, the sharp, insightful, innovative students will necessarily be in the minority.
But the article gets it wrong in some senses. For instance, it quotes Professor Nicol on the weakness of many Chinese students in expressing themselves, with the implication being that this is a language problem. That is true to some extent, but the much larger issue is that many of them can’t express themselves well even in Chinese. Traditional Chinese education simply does not develop that skill, and in fact arguably hinders it.
Coincidentally, I was just discussing the language issue the other day with a U.S.-native graduate student. It’s interesting that Nicol “excises colloquialism from his lectures to avoid confusing the nonnative English speakers.” I do use idioms, but explain for the non-native speakers, in a way I aim to be fun for all students, both foreign and domestic. But again, I wish to emphasize that the low analytical abilities should not be attributed to language problems.
In any case, the language deficiencies can be attributed in large part to the failure of most Chinese students to mix with the Americans. It is real (and mostly special to the Chinese among all foreign students), but I must confess that in spite of decades of closeness to Chinese communities, both academic and personal, I have no idea what causes that failure to mix. Is it due to lack of interest on the part of the Chinese students, or lack of welcoming on the part of the Americans, or both? It is interesting that Mr. Shao applied to, and was accepted by, a fraternity; I doubt that this is common, but it is an encouraging sign.
Most troubling, though, is the article’s theme that many professors feel pressure to reduce the quality of their courses, to accommodate the Chinese “customers.” I have been told that this has occurred in Australia as well.
Again, the severe lack of proper analytical abilities is not a new concept, and East Asian governments have been trying to remedy it for years, without much success. But given centuries of tradition, changing this is “easier said than done” — precisely one of the idioms I recently explained to my graduate class.