The emotional downside to studying in the UK for Chinese students
The vastly different system to that in China and tendency for colleges to devote more effort to marketing themselves than student welfare are being blamed for unhappiness among the Chinese studying in Britain
Thousands of Chinese students will be heading home over the coming weeks from British universities, armed with new qualifications and hopefully a life-enhancing experience. Will they also take home unhappy memories as well?
According to research by Bright Futures – a group of academics in Britain, Germany and China – 16 per cent of Chinese studying in the UK are showing signs of “severe distress”, meaning depression.
This compares with 10 per cent of Chinese students at home, according to the recent study which was based on a survey of 5,610 undergraduates and postgraduates in Britain and China.
About a fifth of Chinese students in Britain said they felt nervous most or all of the time – twice the rate of those in China.
“Typically, university degrees in China are four years [long] and in the fourth year students hardly have any courses,” Sophia Woodman, chancellor’s fellow in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh told The Times this month.
“They are expected to be writing a dissertation and looking for jobs.”
She said in China it was more important which university you went to, but in the UK it was how well you did in your degree that mattered.
Chris Wang, 28, is doing a master's degree in finance and accounting at Queen Mary University of London after studying Hong Kong.
He said a key difference between studying in Britain and China, and perhaps a reason UK study can be stressful for Chinese, is that British colleges expect people to do most of the work outside the classroom.
“They give you guidance on what you have to do but most of the study takes place outside lessons. I was told for each hour of study you should do four or five hours outside school,” Wang said.
Integration into the local culture can also prove challenging.
“I tried really hard to find local flatmates and avoid Asians but in most of the UK masters degrees the majority of students are from overseas,” Wang said.
There were more than 95,000 Chinese students in the UK in the 2016/2017 academic year – excluding those from Hong Kong – according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the official agency for analysing data on UK colleges.
Out of about 450,000 overseas students, Chinese make up the largest bloc after those from the EU – and more are expected.
New British student visa regulations that came into force this monthmake it easier by reducing the number of documents applicants from China need to produce. Chinese students no longer have to provide evidence of finances; qualifications or English language skills.
This brings the rules for Chinese students in line with those in Hong Kong, Malaysia and the United States.
According to Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, “around 98 per cent of Chinese students get visas anyway”.
The British government says it is keen to attract foreign students. Their contribution to the economy is estimated at £15 billion (US$19.8 billion) and creates 250,000 jobs.
But at the same time, London has clamped down on the number of students obtaining post-study visas allowing them to stay and gain work experience after graduation, as part of its tougher immigration policy.
“It doesn’t have such a major effect on Chinese students” Scott said. “The majority want to go straight home and get a job with a good employer.”
But Yinbo Yu, international student’s officer for Britain’s National Union of Students, disagreed. Although it is generally more of a concern for students from poorer countries such as Pakistan, he said Chinese students can be affected.
The 26-year-old from Nanjing also said it is a myth that all students from China are wealthy.
“I know of students on a government university sponsorship who manage to come to this country because the whole village contributed to their education,” he said.
“Attitudes from the government show they are not doing enough even though we are paying.”
British rules that bar foreigners from changing their course once they arrive can also affect their experience, as students can be stuck doing something they do not like for years.
According to Yu, colleges in the UK tend to focus more on attracting students than they do on tackling important issues such as their well-being and mental health once they get there.
The good news, according to Yu, is that more Chinese students in Britain are getting involved in student unions, so they may be able to change things for themselves.
“When I first started this job two years ago I did not see any other Chinese students taking a sabbatical to take up a post in the student’s union. Now there are three or four.
“There is definitely a trend of more Chinese students engaged in the union and not just in sports clubs, but also mental health and well-being services so that their concerns can be raised.”