Chinese universities are recruiting ever more foreign students as they seek to improve their positions on the list of world's top schools. However, favorable policies for overseas recruits have garnered rising complaints from local students.
Graduating students take pictures in front of the landmark gate of Tsinghua University on July 2. Photo: IC
For Chinese students, getting through the ultra-competitive application process to gain admission to top schools like Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University is more than just difficult. It requires students to not only achieve top scores in their high school curriculums but also to have a healthy dose of luck when taking the annual college entrance exam, the feared gaokao.
Described by the BBC as "China's toughest test," the gaokao is the only way for the majority of Chinese students to get into college.
In 2016 alone, nearly 9.4 million students took the gaokao, according to the Ministry of Education (MOE), however, China's top five universities only took in around 23,000 new students, with Tsinghua admitting just 3,000.
International students have a much easier and less competitive path into China's top universities, a situation which has frustrated some in China who believe that Chinese students with foreign nationality are getting an unfair advantage.
Green light for international students
On September 27, Tsinghua's online application system for international students formally opened for those looking to start a course in 2017. Unlike in previous years, applicants will not have to take an academic writing test this year.
According to this year's admission requirements, prospective undergraduate students who hold a foreign passport can apply for Tsinghua without taking any standardized written tests, reported the Beijing Youth Daily on October 8.
Tsinghua's new application process simply involves submitting the relevant documents and having an interview.
However, even previously, the tests for international students did not provide as much of a barrier to entry as the gaokao.
Kevin Wen, an ethnically Chinese student born in the US who has long been attending school in Beijing shared his experience on Q&A website Zhihu this June, writing "Personally, I think Tsinghua's test for science students is not difficult, apart from the last question, the math test doesn't require much thinking."
Another test taker named Ban Shiqin, who has a similar background to Kevin, concluded on another Zhihu post that the written tests for international students in China's top universities are quite easy.
"In general, anyone in our school can get good scores in these tests. As ethnic Chinese, we are taking advantage of the tests. And more importantly, the test is much less competitive than the gaokao," Ban said.
Liu Zhen, the Dean of the Admission Office told Beijing Youth Daily the further relaxation of entry requirements and a focus on interviews rather than tests is an attempt to make applying to Tsinghua more similar to applying to other top international schools.
As part of the government's drive to attract more students from overseas to come to China, apart from the easier application process, international students can simultaneously apply for multiple scholarships, including a Chinese Government Scholarship and Beijing Government Scholarship.
Strategically promoting China
In recent years, China has been working hard to increase its "soft power" and enhance its international influence.
Apart from actively joining global groups like the G20 and AIIB to expand economic clout, the UN Climate Change Conference to have a greater say in environmental protection as well as multiple forums for maintaining regional stability, China has also been busy exporting its culture and education.
Officially published by the China Scholarship Council in December 2015, the Chinese Government Scholarship for an undergraduate provides a minimum of 59,200 yuan ($8,743) per year, which can cover all the spending of a student, including tuition fees, medical insurance, living expenses and accommodation fees.
Programs like the Confucius Institute and the rising numbers of scholarships targeting international students have already helped boost Chinese colleges' reputation.
In the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings published in September, Tsinghua's overall ranking has rocketed from 47 to 35, second in China only to Peking University, and ahead of many prestigious Western universities like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and King's College London.
Cooperation with other countries has also helped Tsinghua boost its reputation internationally. For example, the recently established Schwarzman Scholars, co-founded by Tsinghua and the founder of financial firm the Blackstone Group Stephen Schwarzman, attracted over 100 world famous scholars to Tsinghua in 2016, raising its world reputation rank to 18 in this year's Times Rankings.
Due to favorable policies toward international students, and the rising status of Chinese universities in many ranking lists, the number of overseas students in China has grown steadily in recent years.
Gabby (pseudonym) was born in China but moved to Australia in her teens, and is now on the second year of a master's program in Tsinghua.
"I came back to study in China because I feel China has more possibilities as it goes through the process of developing. And I think Western countries are now stepping into a bottleneck period, I think Eastern culture will be crucial for the world's future development," she explained.
"China is not currently the first choice of many international students, however, by offering them scholarships and lowering the admission requirements, China can attract more talents to come and study," Gabby added.
Mak (pseudonym), 21 years old, is a Malaysian student pursuing her bachelor's degree at the Renmin University of China.
When asked why she chose China, she told the Global Times "I was thinking of studying aboard after graduating from high school, China is a good place to go, and I can apply with my Malaysia Unified Examination Certificate and get scholarships, so I came."
In the 2016 academic year, Renmin University of China admitted 763 international students from over 80 countries, 352 of whom were undergraduates, according to the university's official website.
According to statistics published by the MOE, nearly 400,000 international students studied in China in 2015, and with South Korea, the US, Thailand, India and Russia supplying the most students each.
Unfairness of education
While this plan and the benefits it gives to international students has official support, it has struck as unfair many local students who have to work much harder to get into top schools.
Many have questioned the reliability and validity of Tsinghua's new application process. After relying on test scores as the ultimate assessment method for decades, Chinese students are finding it hard to approve of a more holistic application process.
A netizen using the name Rangkazhafeiafei commented on Sina Weibo "Wanna go Tsinghua and Peking universities? Please emigrate to Equatorial Guinea or Eritrea first, spending millions to get a passport from the-middle-of-nowhere, then you can go Tsinghua and Peking University without taking tests."
XieKG also complained on Weibo, "As long as you are rich and can get a Green Card, you can go directly into Tsinghua, it's even easier than getting a concert ticket."
However, those ethnic Chinese students who are targeted think differently.
Shan (pseudonym), is a Chinese Canadian student studying in Tsinghua University. Her family emigrated to Canada when she was 2 years old and moved back to China several years ago.
Though she admits that in her university, some overseas Chinese students are indeed taking advantage of these favorable policies to get into a school they could not get into in other circumstances, she said that the majority of ethnic Chinese students deserve their place in Tsinghua.
"I understand why Chinese people think it's unfair, if an ethnic Chinese student who is not even qualified for a community college but gets admitted by Tsinghua easily it is unfair, however, for those who have already got a certificate from prestigious schools in US, Canada, studying in Tsinghua is more about learning about Chinese culture and Chinese society, instead of just getting a degree from Tsinghua," Shan told the Global Times.
"Many of my friends at Tsinghua have degrees from prestigious universities in the West, an additional degree from Tsinghua or Peking University may not add a huge benefit to our job hunting or resume. Studying at a Chinese university is a way to integrate into local society better. A way for us to improve our Chinese and receive more local information," she added, while mentioning she had to turn down an offer from The University of Hong Kong and The London School of Economics and Political Science to come to Tsinghua.
Gabby also thinks it's not right to blame international students for how hard it is to get into top schools.
"The admission policy for international students has nothing to do with the fierce competition of Chinese students getting into Tsinghua, whether there are international students or not, getting admitted to Tsinghua is difficult for local students anyway," Gabby told the Global Times.
Shan's opinion is also shared by Mak, who said that only students who rank the first one or two among all international students in a grade have the chance to apply for the Chinese Government Scholarship, and the percentage of scholarship winners is "extraordinarily low."
According to a report published by the MOE this April, 40,600 of the nearly 400,000 overseas students in China received the Chinese Government Scholarship.
The discussion of double standards in education for local students and international students is not only limited to China.
In Japan, the increasing number of overseas students in universities has also attracted a lot of attention.
Local newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported in September that top Japanese universities are now filled with Chinese students who failed in China's gaokao, and these universities are becoming a "resurrection place" for them.
With their experience of living in China and abroad, Gabby and Shan both think critically of the new admission requirements. They also mentioned that universities in US and Australia offer more lax requirements for international students in order to attract investment and benefit from international students by charging them several times more than domestic students.
"China is now opening up to the international world, it is an inevitable process," Shan added.