For Yali Liu, the hardest thing about UK higher education is having to go to the pub. "It's how much you need to invest socially with other students," she says. "I don't like going to a pub or club, but people just keep going out and I feel the pressure to go out too." This is because, unlike in China, she says, there is so much emphasis during the course on teamwork and group projects, so socialising with other students is crucial. "It's not about what you know and how you work, it's really about working with other people – especially British people," she says. "I find that so difficult." Then there's what to talk about when she does go out. Why do her fellow students spend so much time analysing the TV programme First Dates, for example?
Liu, 23, who is in her final year of a BSc in business administration at the University of Bath's school of management, is one of more than 80,000 Chinese students studying in UK universities. They make up the largest group of international students – there are now nearly as many Chinese as UK full-time postgraduate studentsand over 38,000 undergraduates – and their numbers are growing fast. As a result, they are responsible for a large proportion of the more than ￡10bn a year that international students contribute to the UK economy.
But while the numbers of Chinese students attending UK universities is a success story, new research shows that where their academic attainment is concerned, the picture is not so good. While nearly 68% of all students – and 52% of overseas students from outside the European Union – graduated with a first or 2.1 last year, this was true of only 42% of students from China, according to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa).
This undermines the traditional stereotype of the hard-working, high-achieving Chinese student. "There is all this talk – almost propaganda – about how brilliant the Chinese education system is, so when they come to the UK you would expect them to do really well," says Zhiqi Wang, senior lecturer in accounting and finance at Bath Spa University and one of the authors of the new research. Wang says the reason for Chinese students' low academic attainment is unknown. "We could clearly see the poor performance of Chinese students at UK universities but we had no idea why it was." So to find an explanation, Wang and Ian Crawford, a teaching fellow in accounting and finance at the University of Bath, decided to compare the performance of Chinese and British undergraduates in each year of their degree. Taking a sample of just over 100 British and Chinese accounting and finance first-degree students who enrolled in 2008, and comparing their average marks and final degree classification, they found a dramatic drop in performance among the Chinese students between year one, when they performed better than their UK counterparts, and year two, when they performed worse. This did not seem to be explained by their previous academic qualifications.
Crawford and Wang believe the slump in attainment can be put down to two factors. First, Chinese students fail to adapt their approaches to learning and so their performance declines in the later years of a degree when the complexity of the work increases. And, second, while the UK and Chinese education systems are not that different, the strong focus in China on study and achieving qualifications means many young people enrol in higher education due to pressure from family or the jobs market rather than their own motivation.
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