Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Students, made in China

Chinese universities are about to give Western universities a run for their money within two decades, according to Professor Richard Levin, President of Yale University. While the West battles economic recession, cuts down university grants and budgets (the UK has cut 950 million pounds) and increases student fees, China’s economy — and higher education spending — is going from strength to strength.

The Chinese now invest billions of yuan — around 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product — on higher education. China increased the number of its higher education institutions in the last decade from 1,022 to 2,263, creating the largest higher education sector in the world. Now, six million Chinese students enroll in degree courses every year compared to 1 million in 1997 — an unprecedented and exponential increase, but commonplace in China.

However, Chinese education is not as multi-disciplinary yet. Compared to Western education, it does not focus on critical thinking, liberal arts, and other international concerns like globalisation, climate change, etc. The biggest impediments might be its political system and absence of freedom of speech.

Also, though China has many courses in English, the society as a whole is far from multi-lingual. But living and studying in an exquisite society, with a unique and original culture, is a boon in itself. And just like China has opened its arms for Western languages, the World now realises the significance of Chinese, and many people don’t mind a few years in Beijing to fine-tune their Mandarin.

Pakistanis have been embracing Chinese education for decades. Now as China enters its academic renaissance and opens its generous doors to foreigners, Pakistan is likely to become a beneficiary too.

Medicine is a popular career option in Pakistan. Pakistan has far fewer colleges than China, the latter attracting students due to its world-class degrees, low cost and PMDC/WHO recognised institutes. “I graduated from Xi’an Jiaotong University in 2005,” says Dr. Baber Jadoon, based in Peshawar. “Some 100 Pakistanis studied with me, when I was graduating, there were some 4600 Pakistanis only in my university.” Jadoon adds that some 35 more universities in China cater to Pakistani students and a four-month Mandarin course resolves the language problem.

Dr. Jadoon has no qualms in stating that the Chinese medical training is more apt than the local one, stating that his professors were foreign-qualified doctorates. For example, to practise dissection the Chinese institutes have one corpse per four students as compared to the Pakistani ratio of one corpse for an entire class. Also, the Chinese degree is more economical and less time-consuming than a Western MBBS. Plus, the Chinese job market is growing and lucrative for those who decide to stay back.

In Pakistan, sometimes even the brightest pre-medical student do not secure admissions because of paucity of seats, whereas the numerous Chinese institutes open their doors for students with average grades.

“In my time, studying there was cheaper than in Frontier Medical College. But the cost has increased, now.” says Dr. Jadoon. The cost of higher education in China is regulated (like everything else) and subsidised by the Ministry of Education (MOE). Some five years ago, the tuition fee was a meager $1000. At some places it has been revised to $2500 annually, excluding other expenditure. In some medical colleges the final year is free. Short language courses, which constitute one of China’s foremost educational attractions, cost just a few hundred US dollars. The cost of living is quite low. For example, a subway ticket in Beijing is 30 cents, while the bus fare is 15 cents.

Pakistanis, especially those wanting to study in the US, often cannot due to the strict visa policies. Either they are directly refused a visa or the processing is tedious and delayed. But China is different. Despite the occasional Sinkiang and Kashgar terror strikes, almost everybody gets a visa. And the social attitude there is far from discriminatory.

“People are very kind and they love Pakistanis. When a taxi driver asks “You are from which country?” And when we say we are from Pakistan, his first expression is, “We are very good friends,” says Dr. Nadeem Akhtar who did his doctorate from Wuhan University, HUBIE. “Students from HEC or Cultural Exchange scholarships are working in good places. For example, Dr. Abdul Jalil who was on Cultural Exchange Scholarship (MOE), published more than 20 papers and is now working in Quaid-e-Azam University. Another Dr. Sahin Musarrat Ishaq was doing post-doc in Wisconsin Madison University in America.”

However, all is not rosy for aspiring doctors attempting to reach China. Some agents promising glorious dreams about the Middle Kingdom can only be called fraudsters and send students to unrecognised or fake universities. One such reported case was that of a Rawalpindi resident, sent to Changsha Medical University, after being misled about its credentials.

China seems to be quite willing to internationalise its society in order to enhance its soft power. Indeed, student exchanges serve as Track II diplomacy the world over. This year, the Chinese Embassy Cultural Counsellor, Yang Linhai, announced 500 scholarships for Pakistani students in the next three years. He hopes this will promote a deeper understanding of the two countries. Each year several doctorate and research scholarships are granted to Pakistani students through HEC.

This April, 100 Pakistani youngsters went on a week-long cultural tour of Beijing through the youth ministry. However, the transparency and selection criteria of both HEC and the Youth Ministry is under question.

Some 500,000 international students will embrace China by 2020 according to Hao Ping, the Chinese Vice Minister of Education. Almost 60 percent of those students want to learn the Chinese language also. (13.5 percent are likely to study medicine) The Chinese central government provided 800 million yuan ($121.7 million) worth scholarships to such students in 2010 and local governments offered an additional 110 million yuan in scholarships. Schools like Cornell, Columbia, London School of Economics, John  Hopkins, Auburn, Nottingham and many more, have either out-sourced their campuses ( faculty and programs included) to China or offer degrees in coordination with Chinese universities.

The Chinese have established around 280 Confucius Institutes and 270 Confucius Classrooms in 88 countries and regions, training 260,000 students about China’s culture and language. In Pakistan, the first Confucius Institute was set up in The National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Islamabad in 2005, and according to NUML spokesman Muddasir Mukhtar, this institute was ranked the best of its kind in the world this year.

China is ready to invest big in education. Hopefully, Pakistanis will make constructive use of this windfall.

This piece was first carried in the News on Sunday

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