City Weekend

Why Chinese students are being drawn to America’s faith-based universities – US provost tells all

Thomas Burish is responsible for academic administration at the University of Notre Dame. He discusses the rising tide of Chinese students choosing the US for their university education, why religion can aid learning, and differences in classroom approach across the seas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 3:24pm

The number of Chinese undergraduate students studying in the United States increased from about 20,000 in 2008 to almost 140,000 by 2015, according to the US National Bureau of Economic Research.

In the 2015-16 academic year, there were a total of 330,000 Chinese students, from both Hong Kong and the mainland, studying in America, and they accounted for 31.5 per cent of the total 1.04 million international enrolments in the country, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.

More students from Hong Kong and the mainland are travelling abroad for their university education. The trend is evident at the University of Notre Dame in the US state of Indiana, where Thomas Burish is the provost, responsible for academic administration.

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Founded by a priest of the French missionary order, the Catholic university educates its students on a faith basis. It was ranked 24th in US university rankings released this year by British newspaper The Times, and 150th in their World University Rankings 2018.

In 2012 Notre Dame signed an agreement with the University of Hong Kong for a student exchange programme: each year eight scholarships are awarded for students to study abroad.

The relationship is treasured by Notre Dame, said Burish, who previously studied psychology at the institution before returning there in 2005 to become their fourth provost.

What does it mean to be a Catholic university in America?

Many of the top research universities in America were at one stage religiously affiliated: Chicago, Vanderbilt, Duke. Eventually they all separated from their religious foundation. Most of them believed you could either be associated with the church – faith based – or be intellectually excellent. You could not be both.

Notre Dame doesn’t see an inevitable contradiction between faith and reason. It is our belief that you are more likely to understand something more thoroughly if it is pursued both through faith and reason. There are not many universities that would hold that, certainly at a top research level.

It doesn’t mean that everything we teach is somehow different because of faith – calculus is the same no matter what – but in some areas it allows you to understand something from a different perspective. That is why theology is a very central programme, for example.

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Universities that are truly great and known and respected have some special quality which distinguishes them.

The distinguishing characteristic of Notre Dame stems from its foundation as a Catholic university: it embraces a certain set of values that are very important, that people of any faith or no faith can embrace. They include an emphasis on ethics, on doing things the right way, on moral leadership – educating the whole person. Our major concern is the human being: body, soul, intellect, spirit. That is a different education. A lot can happen outside the classroom.

What role do Catholic universities play in US-China relations?

Students from mainland China or Hong Kong go for the things that I just mentioned. I think a lot of parents are pleased to see their children go as it is a safe environment and gives them a different perspective.

Students from China tell us that in the United States they have much more interaction with the faculty staff in the classroom, that they debate things and challenge them and raise their hands to ask questions. They go to see them during office hours to talk about individual things. And that is different than what they would find in China. They say we value original innovative thinking, less so memorising. To come up with things that are new, to challenge a professor, to defend their point of view. That is an American perspective, and I think western Europe has that as well.

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At Notre Dame you can talk about a faith you might have, or don’t have, and challenge why people believe what they believe – that topic is often not discussed at a secular institution, it’s not appropriate. We find that students from China, even those who have not been exposed to religion in any organised way, become involved in these discussions. They sometimes find themselves changing their perspective because they never understood faith or what role it plays in your life.

What is the impact of tensions between the US and China on education ties?

We don’t feel the tensions; our focus is on helping students understand the different perspectives. We don’t take a side on an issue, we want students to be able to understand the reason countries have different perspectives and to form their own views about what perspective they would like to have.

Students from China or Hong Kong may have a perspective when they come that is different from American students. But we hope they have informed our students and ours have informed them, and they reach a greater understanding about different countries.

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Have the numbers of mainland and Hong Kong students at Notre Dame risen or dropped in recent years?

The numbers have been increasing. In 2008 the number from the greater China area was tiny, at eight undergraduate students. Now we have about 130 undergraduates and 282 graduate students.

From Hong Kong we have exchange programmes with a couple of the universities – approximately eight students a year. It’s been a very positive experience on both sides, something we treasure.

Do US universities still have an advantage over overseas institutions in terms of attracting Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students?

I think that great universities, wherever they are, have distinctive features. Students look for those and pick the university accordingly.

Notre Dame is becoming more popular with Chinese students. Almost every year we have a record number of applications from China. I know it is becoming more popular but I don’t know the application numbers of other institutions.

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Hong Kong’s universities are ranked among the best in the world. How do we compare with Notre Dame and other top US universities, in your opinion?

I don’t know enough about Hong Kong universities to compare them to others. I do know that the students we get from Hong Kong universities are excellent. So I think, based on the students they’re educating, they’re doing a very good job. The students we see are bright, inquisitive, they speak English well.

It is also a reason we come to Hong Kong every year – we think very highly of the Hong Kong universities.

I think rote learning is true of mainland China, but we are seeing the Hong Kong universities looking more and more like Western universities. The students that come from Hong Kong are more comfortable with the style we have than students who come from mainland China.

Some say Hong Kong university education does not prepare students well for the workplace or the real world. What are the problems and what are we lacking?

I haven’t seen that in the students who are coming to Notre Dame ... maybe we have an atypical group of students. They look very well prepared.

We do a survey of our students approximately six months after they graduate, and usually 96 to 97 per cent are in graduate school, or doing voluntary work for a non-profit organisation, or have a job in the for-profit world. The students who come from Hong Kong look similar to us. I don’t know how the career centre here prepares the students, but their innate ability seems to be very high.

A lot of Chinese students want to stay in America for a while to work there – depending on visa issues – at least for a while. A number work for multinational companies and are transferred both ways.

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What are your views on academic freedom? How would you define it and how do we bridge the communication divide regarding academic freedom in the context of Hong Kong?

I would define academic freedom as the freedom to pursue the truth wherever that may take you – that related to your scholarship or research, and how to teach. It’s the freedom to pursue your intellectual interests in a manner you think is appropriate. The freedom of expression. To speak the way you think is important. Defined in that way, it is important at any university.

I don’t know enough about the political situation in Hong Kong to know specifically whether it exists and how it exists, and how to restore it. What I do know is that, to be maximally affected, the faculty have to believe they have the freedom to pursue their discipline, the truth, in the way they think is appropriate. If it isn’t there, it is important that it is.


What is your favourite down time activity at home?

I exercise every day. I used to love running a lot, but unfortunately injuries have led me now to use machines, so I try to do something different every day. It is relaxing to me and it’s a break.

Can you speak any other languages?

No – I can understand a bit of French. I took five years of Latin, but unfortunately I never learned to speak it. I took one year of Greek, but can’t do much at all with that.

What is it about psychology that interests you?

It is understanding human behaviour that has always fascinated me. Why do people do what they do? How do you change people’s behaviour? How do they understand what they believe in? I was in clinical psychology and most of my research was in cancer. We looked at some of the side effects that cancer patients developed from their therapies, and most of them are learned – psychological in the sense of predictable behaviours that all human beings would develop if they were in that situation. We tried to help people prevent or unlearn those behaviours. It was a wonderful career, I miss research and teaching.

What one other career would you choose?

I enjoy what I do very much, but I also enjoyed what I did before. I miss not being in the classroom and doing research.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live and why?

I would live in Indiana because that is where Notre Dame is.

What is your biggest life achievement?

The biggest would be having a family – we have two wonderful children and I have been married for more than 40 years. I don’t know if it’s my achievement, but it’s my privilege or gift to be part of the family.