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Living on the edge

Teaching Chinese to chat builds university integration, says Melanie Butler

The number of mainland Chinese students looking to enrol in UK universities is going up again, with nearly 30,000 applying for a place this September, according to the national university admissions body, UCAS. But with fees from the People’s Republic of China now topping £1.7 billion a year, concerns are arising about both the over-dependence of some universities on the Chinese market and whether Chinese students are getting their money’s worth.

“I would say that the Chinese students don’t get enough attention or enough services for their money,” a Glasgow University student named Hua, who comes from a small village in Shandong, told the BBC in a recent radio documentary.

“They complained the university was not doing enough to develop their 
English-language skills”

Students also told the BBC they wanted to integrate more, but were often housed in large, exclusively Chinese student residences and they complained the university was not doing enough to develop their English-language skills Glasgow University told the BBC that it offered Chinese students not only English language assistance, but a range of services from academic advice to welfare support.

The problem may lie in the fact that university language centres concentrate on the academic language skills that students need to get through their degree: listening, reading and note-taking, making formal oral presentations and, above all, essay writing. But what mainland Chinese also need, as British author Hugh Dellar pointed out decades ago, is the language you need to just have a chat.


“I really want to make friends with local people, but I don’t know how to communicate with them. That makes me a little bit sad,” a girl using her English name Fiona told the BBC reporter. Ironically perhaps, British students’ main complaints about their mainland Chinese peers are, judging by comments made on student websites, that they “hang around in bubbles”, talk Mandarin too much when they are with non-Chinese students and have poor spoken English which is “difficult to understand”.

Mainland Chinese have more problems with what we might call social English than other ethnic Chinese groups because they

have had far less everyday exposure to the spoken language than those who grew up in, say, Hong Kong, Singapore or Malaysia. Judging by comments on the websites, students from these other Han Chinese communities, including ‘BBCs’ (British born Chinese) will often reach out to act as a cultural bridge only to be rebuffed because their Mandarin isn’t good enough.

University language centres would do well to pay attention to the comments from both mainland Chinese and their UK counterparts as to poor spoken English: it’s a skill that’s often overlooked in the rush to get them through their degree. Intelligibility, the difficulty listeners have in decoding speech sounds, may prove a particular problem, as native speakers of English tend to judge a foreigner’s fluency more on the intelligibility of supra segmentals and nuclear stress than the accuracy of their syntax.

The problem is made worse by the fact that mainland Chinese tend to cluster in particular universities, generally at the Russel Group ones in large cities, which have long- established Chinese communities (most of which, for historic reasons, speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin). Of the the 10 British cities with large British Chinese communities, only two – Newcastle and Nottingham – do not appear on the list of top 10 universities for Chinese enrolment. All 10 have large International Foundation Year Programmes, which are designed to be a bridge between the home country’s schooling and a British UK university education: three run by Kaplan, two by Study Group, one by INTO and three that run their own programmes.

Mixing it up

There are Russell Group universities with relatively low numbers of mainland Chinese: Queen Mary’s, London has around 6%, Queen’s University Belfast 5% and Exeter, a firm favourite with the English upper classes, below 5%. But agents and students looking for places where integration is easier need to throw their net more widely.

The Chinese are very keen on university rankings, but they tend to focus too much on the overall rankings and forget to check how well a university does in the subject they are aiming to study. Take business and management, perhaps the top choice for many students and one in which the University of Bath, where Chinese make up just 5% of the student body, outranks UCL on the QS international ranking by subject. Or sport science, where Loughborough, which has just 4% Chinese, ranks top in the world, while Bath comes in third. Chinese agents may never have heard of these universities, but they consistently rank in the top 10 for British students who are particularly attracted by their campus locations and their excellent work-placement schemes.

Or take Swansea, which ranks top in medicine (followed by Oxford and then Dundee in the Complete University Guide). Out of its 24,000 students, 700 are Chinese – enough to form a community, but not so many that they can avoid integrating. This Welsh university also has one subject on offer which makes integration much easier: Mandarin.

Foreign-language degrees are becoming rare in the UK, but the universities that offer Mandarin, such as Portsmouth, De Montfort and UCLan, are in a good position to create direct link-ups between students who need to improve their Chinese and those who want to practice their English. Student websites wax lyrical about those which have ‘Sino English corners’ – areas on campus where the two groups can meet up for conversation exchanges – and praise unis which have ABACUS (the Association of British And Chinese Students), as well as societies purely for Chinese.

Campuses with a Confucius Institute, such as South hampton and Oxford Brookes, also create opportunities for language exchange. True, these institutes can be politically controversial, but they can also open doors. At Edge Hill, for example, the Institute is open not just to their own students, but to local schoolteachers and their pupils, creating a link with the wider community.

The take-away

The single best idea we came across, however, was from a British student at an unnamed university which trained local undergraduates in the basics of ELF-style pronunciation teaching and set up one-to-one conversation classes, designed to increase confidence and break down cultural barriers.

It may also make them feel safer. A feeling of insecurity, especially when they venture off campus, is another reason mainland Chinese form protective bubbles. Although the UK is not a dangerous country – it has among the lowest murder rates in the Western world – racial harassment is not unknown and attacks on Chinese students certainly rose during Covid, just as they did in all the main education travel destinations, including Australia and Canada.

However, it’s dangerous to jump to the conclusion that an attack on a Chinese student is always a sign of racism. In 2021 there were a series of attacks on Chinese students in Sheffield. Nine women were hit on the head from behind and several were badly injured. The story went viral in mainland China and the Chinese Consul General urged the university to take special measures to protect students.

In September 2021, a former student of Sheffield University, Shan He, was charged with the attacks. She was described as Asian and no further information was given, but Shan is quite a common Han Chinese surname.

Image courtesy of PHOTO BY PIXABAY
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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