There is a curious sight at the University of Sydney’s Department of Computer Science building. Despite being within the flagship academic institution of Australia’s largest city, there is little English heard in its hallways. Groups of Chinese students hurriedly rush in and out of the building, loudly conversing in Mandarin and various other Chinese languages.

Observing life in front of the computer science building, one comes to understand why university students refer to it as “Chinatown.”

While it is an exaggeration to say the majority of students using the building are Chinese, it is still impossible to miss their impact. Times Higher Education reports that of the 480,000 international students in Australia in 2017, Chinese students made up a full 30 percent, an increase of 17 percent from the previous year.

The influx is writ large inside the University of Sydney campus, where their sheer mass allows the Chinese to form an exclusive community within the student body. This community is closed off to non-Chinese, as English is barely ever spoken by their members. The Chinese-only description of the Chinese Student Association of the University of Sydney counts more than 4,000 current students (out of 52,000 total) and 45,000 alumni as members.


Credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed

A student from University of Sydney's Business School walks from the building in Sydney

The situation is not unique to the University of Sydney or any other top English-language school in the world. At the University of Tokyo, widely acknowledged as the top school in Japan, the Chinese presence is even more extreme. The Japan Student Service Organization (JASSO) reported in 2017 that the number of Chinese university students in Japan reached 107,000, making up a substantial portion of the total 267,000 international students.

This proportion is consistent with 2017 data from the University of Tokyo, which show 1,800 Chinese students making up 48.7 percent of all foreign students. The Chinese presence is accentuated by their concentration in certain graduate programs. In the words of one admissions officer, applicant pools of some programs are more than 90 percent Chinese. Even as admission officers try their best to make the student body as diverse as possible, the outcome is still around half are Chinese.

Increased disposable incomes, traditional emphasis on education, and distrust of domestic universities have together pushed many Chinese parents to send their children abroad for higher education. As hundreds of thousands of Chinese simultaneously stream into campuses across the world, they find ready communities of compatriots providing them with information, support for their academic lives and a sense of being “home away from home.”

Yet this success is not without consequences.

The most apparent is backlash from non-Chinese international students. As they, too, cope with the difficulties of handling academic pressure with the demands of life in a foreign country, they justifiably feel a sense of resentment toward the Chinese, who are shielded from this alienation and set apart by their exclusive use of Chinese languages for communication.

This exclusivity sometimes carries over into academic life. Chinese students collaborate to share information to the detriment of productive academic discussions, a situation that in the worst cases has led to accusations of plagiarism from their non-Chinese classmates. Chinese student communities are also prone to reacting by increasing their social distance rather than working to resolve such conflicts.

Such resentment reflects badly on the academic institutions themselves. If non-Chinese students of a certain school resent the Chinese presence on campus, it is likely that they warn others against applying to the same school, if just to negate the “Chinatown” effect.

One of the qualities top universities prize is a global reputation buttressed by the presence of an internationally diverse student body. If the school’s foreign student body consists largely of Chinese students, it is difficult to argue that such diversity has been achieved. Realistically, they must work to ensure that the Chinese are limited to a reasonable portion of the overall student population.

Given many schools’ financial constraints, however, limiting Chinese admissions is easier said than done. In countries like the UK and Australia, international students are a lucrative source of income, as they pay tuition fees many times those of locals. For instance, the popular Bachelor of Computer Science program at the University of Sydney costs AU$44,500 (US$36,000) per year for international students but only AU$9,185 for Australian citizens. Given the size of the Chinese market, investing in marketing in China is perhaps the most cost-effective option available for all but the most august institutions of higher learning.

Instead of deterring the Chinese from coming, a better idea would be to create deliberate strategies to break up clusters of Chinese students and integrate them more evenly. For majors like computer science that attract large numbers of Chinese applicants, quotas could be set to push Chinese applicants to pursue alternative subjects.

Individual courses could also set quotas for Chinese students so as to break up crowds of Chinese students hanging out in the same classes and buildings at the same time. Even more effective, albeit difficult to implement, is encouraging Chinese students to improve communication with non-Chinese.

For courses that require group projects, there could be rules against the Chinese clustering together. Moreover, strict rules against speaking foreign languages during class times and in certain locations on campus would ease communication problems.

Such rules would face criticism for racial profiling and xenophobia. But, surprisingly, they might carry favor among more internationally minded Chinese students. It is erroneous to assume that all Chinese students who decide to embed themselves within Chinese student communities are not interested in communicating more with the non-Chinese.

But I have also observed instances of Chinese students reluctant to break away from their countrymen for fear of being excluded. For many Chinese students, access to information on how best to adapt to new culture and schooling is indispensable.

Indeed, a student from China at the University of Tokyo recently voiced frustration over a lack of knowledge about how to speak to foreigners. The fact that he had never spent so much time with non-Chinese people in the first 25 years of his life means that he simply does not know what to talk about in order to make conversations productive and worthwhile.

If universities set rules that visibly weaken the cohesion of Chinese communities, suppress public usage of the Chinese language, and put more Chinese students in touch with the non-Chinese, internationally minded Chinese students might appreciate the opportunity to escape the restrictive social norms of the Chinese community.

They could then indulge their desire to understand other cultures, make new friends or just become more proficient in other languages. University rules are a good first step for individual Chinese students to become better integrated with the wider student body.

The News Lens offered the Chinese Student Association of the University of Sydney right of reply on this story.

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