China-US relations

MIT move may prove a hard lesson for all

  • If the fear of US President Donald Trump that students from China are spies is behind the decision of the institute not to admit any of its undergraduates this year, those from both nations are going to lose out
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 8:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 11:20pm

American colleges have long been the favoured choice for mainland students wanting to study overseas and the people-to-people exchanges have contributed to building understanding between the nations. A sense that the anti-Chinese sentiment in US President Donald Trump’s administration is filtering through to the admissions policies of top universities is therefore worrying. For the first time in years, no Chinese undergraduates have made it through the early acceptance programme of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and there are similar accounts from elsewhere. There has been no explanation, but if it is related to White House concerns about theft of technology and intellectual property, the moves are bound to be counterproductive.

Trump perceives China as a rival and threat and he has made its growing technological might a focus of attention. Claims of spying to steal know-how have been followed up with visa restrictions and requirements for Chinese postgraduates majoring in science and engineering. There have been reports the fears are so great that the White House has been debating whether to ban all Chinese nationals from studying at US universities. That MIT, renowned for research in the disciplines that have been specifically targeted, has seemingly changed its policy, has caused concern.

Chinese students miss out on early places at MIT, but how come?

Overseas universities have numerous attractions for mainlanders. The rigidity of the local higher education system and the stress and competition involving the gaokao, the entrance exam, are reason for many students and their parents to look overseas. There are also job, migration, language and cultural opportunities and in the case of the United States, prestige and a belief that education standards are more advanced.

Gaining admission is not just about test scores; foreign universities are increasingly looking for well-rounded students who have inquiring minds, a passion for their chosen course and an ability to think and work independently. Those could well be factors in the decision of MIT and other colleges and it is to be hoped that Trump’s belief that students are spies is not at play. If the latter is true, the losers will be the people of China and the US.