A university in eastern China on Friday apologised over an intercultural programme to match foreign and local students of the opposite sex on campus, after it prompted a flood of criticism online. Shandong University, in the city of Jinan, said in its apology that it would conduct a thorough review of its “Buddy Programme”, which was introduced in 2016. “There has been a lot of discussion on the internet about our ‘Buddy Programme’,” the university said in a statement on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “We deeply regret the negative influence of this ... we failed to do a proper job and included ‘making foreign acquaintances of the opposite sex’ as an option in the programme application,” it said. “We are grateful for all the criticism and suggestions of friends who have expressed their views on the internet and for them caring about Shandong University,” the statement said, adding that the university would learn from its mistakes. But it said the programme was only aimed at encouraging students to “learn culturally and academically” from each other. The controversy erupted this week when a notice issued by the university last year was circulated on Weibo. It said the university had paired 141 Chinese students with 47 foreign students, mainly of the opposite sex, under the “Buddy Programme”. That notice has since been removed from the university’s website, but a cached version shows that every one of the 47 foreigners taking part – from countries including Pakistan, Kenya, Yemen and Nepal – was matched with three Chinese students, most of them female. The notice was met with uproar online, with hundreds of people questioning why a university needed to help match up foreign students with members of the opposite sex. “There are many ways to promote intercultural communications, but what Shandong University has done will inevitably lead to problems and may even cause dangers,” one person wrote on Weibo. Another said: “No country takes care of Chinese students this way, so why can’t we just treat foreign students in China equally? Why should we treat them like they are gods?” From Africa and across Asia, students follow the belt and road map to an education at Chinese universities But some Shandong University students weighed in to defend the programme, saying they were keen for any opportunity they could get to improve their English. “We are victims of a social media outcry. We have few English-speaking international students in our university but everyone hopes to improve their spoken English,” one Chinese student wrote on Weibo. “I don’t see any problem with three Chinese students pairing up with one international student. It’s inevitable because the demand exceeds the supply.” Universities in China offer generous scholarships and grants to attract foreign students, especially those from developing countries. According to education ministry statistics, there were 492,185 international students studying in China last year, with 60 per cent of them coming from Asia. South Korea, Thailand and Pakistan were the top three countries. Some 63,041 of those students were on full scholarships from the Chinese government, while others received grants from local governments or their universities.