China is managing to lure young international IT talent away from the Silicon Valley into the Chinese tech industry

By Katrin Büchenbacher Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/2 17:37:45

With government scholarships and relatively low tuition fees, students can enroll in machine learning, AI and cloud computing classes at top universities in China for a fraction of the price in the US. Photo: IC

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ranks number one for computer science and engineering according to a ranking by the US News in 2016. However, an increasing number of overseas students are now choosing number five on the list - Tsinghua University.

The American technology magazine Wired has dedicated its 2018 March/April issue to China, explaining how the country became tech's dominant superpower. But for the new generation of overseas students in China, this is no big news. They do not enroll into Chinese universities to study the Chinese language, but because they want to learn more about cloud computing, artificial intelligence and big data. Keeping up with the pace of the local tech industry and its demand for skilled workers, more and more Chinese universities have opened up tech-related undergraduate and graduate programs taught entirely in English. As a result, the number of international tech students in China has been growing.

"An international environment is important for our department," Ma Yuchun, from the department of computer science and technology at Tsinghua University who teaches international students in the advanced computing master's program, tells Metropolitan.

US native Benjamin Pennant is one of the students in the program. China lured him with its abundant opportunities, "particularly in the tech field," Pennant says, adding, "They've made leaps and bounds with robotics, especially in pairing bioengineering with AI."

After obtaining a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle, he wanted to change his direction to computer science. "In the US, it's pretty difficult to find a master's program that's suited for people who didn't study computer science," Pennant says. The master's in advanced computing at Tsinghua also caught his eye because of the high international ranking of the program and the "cultural novelty" of living in China.

Impressed with China's advancements in robotics, American native Benjamin Pennant came to China to study advanced computing at Tsinghua University. Photo: Katrin Büchenbacher/GT

More education for less

Another factor was the price. A year at the MIT costs $49,892 in tuition, while a year at Tsinghua is only 39,000 yuan ($6,163).

For second-year master's student Clément Jean, a French native, money also played a role in his choice to study at Tsinghua instead of a US university.

"American universities are expensive compared to Chinese universities, while the teaching level does not differ substantially," Jean, 22, says.

The affordable, English-taught education appeals to people from developing countries as well. The Tsinghua program attracts not only students from Europe, Canada and the US, but also from India, Malaysia and African countries, according to Ma. Since the launch of the program in 2010, student enrollment has more than doubled, with 40 enrollments in the last two years.

At other universities, students from China's neighboring countries make up the largest part of the tech majors. At the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT), students from Asia account for 53 percent, Europe for 20 percent, Africa for 18 percent and the Americas for 7 percent, Wang Ying, director of the BIT international students office, recalls. The school only started to offer English-taught programs in 2013 for international students, such as computer science and software engineering. Today, they offer 11 master's programs and six bachelor's programs aimed at both international and Chinese students who want to increase their English language skills. As a result, international student numbers have increased to over 2,200, among which 400 are studying in computer-related fields.

"The purpose of having English-taught programs is to enhance the standard of our internationalized teaching," Wang says.

However, English-taught programs are more expensive than the Chinese-taught classes. For example, a Chinese undergraduate program costs 23,000 yuan a year, while the English-taught programs come to 30,000 yuan.

To keep education even more affordable and attractive for international tech talents, the school has set up a "strong and complete" scholarship system. "Overall, most international students can get different amounts of scholarships," Wang says.

International students in China can apply for the Chinese government scholarship for master's students that offers full coverage of tuition fees and living costs, local government scholarships and scholarships from the universities and departments.

Bachelor's student Daud Khan receives four different scholarships from Chang'an University in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province and the Shaanxi government, adding up to 46,000 yuan in total. Even though his family would not have been able to afford university-level education in Saudi Arabia, where Khan, a Pakistani national, was born and raised, he says that it was his passion for IT, not a cheap education, that brought him to China.

"I am the first person in my family to get a bachelor's degree. My dad wanted me to get a safe job as a government official. But I told him that I had to follow my dream."

Glitches in the system

However, since the English-taught tech programs at Chinese universities are only a few years old, they still need time to mature.

Little did Khan know that when he enrolled in the English-taught electronic information engineering bachelor's degree at Chang'an University in 2014, that he would be enjoying a private education. His former classmates, who belonged to the first generation of students in this program, have all dropped out or left. Even with the full attention of his teachers, Khan says it is sometimes difficult to do all the assignments on his own. But Khan appreciates that the school keeps running the program just for him so he can continue to learn about programming languages, communication signals, machine learning, databases, the Internet of Things, big data and cloud computing. For his master's degree, he again applied for Chang'an University as well as two universities in Shanghai.

"Honestly, because of the teachers and this university, I gained a lot of opportunities," he said.

Other issues with the program curriculums are harder to find.

Khan's country mate, Usman Ramzan, who studies computer science at the Beijing Institute of Graphic Communication, came to China to see "what is going on in the world." Ramzan, 25, reports that the level of study in his university in Pakistan was higher and thus he did not learn anything new in his master's program.

"I focus now on learning from my thesis instead of from class," he says.

After his first semester at Tsinghua, Pennant reports being satisfied with the quality of the advanced computing program. "The professors are knowledgeable, and we definitely feel that we learn a lot." But he does struggle a bit with keeping up. "It seems to be lecture, lecture, lecture, lecture and no checking for understanding. But these topics are pretty advanced, so I do wish that there was a bit more feedback."

The English proficiency of the teachers is another point that Pennant hopes can be improved.

"Paired with the fact that the topics are complicated, it makes it hard to follow sometimes in class."

Ma admits that communication can sometimes be an issue, but since engineering is mostly about implementation, basic communication skills should be enough to follow the lectures.

"Most difficulties emerge from understanding the class material, for instance, if students lack a solid background in mathematics, not from communication issues," she says.

Build talent and keep it

But does China manage to attract the global tech talents its industry needs with its low-cost higher education model? At the BIT, Wang explains how they manage to set the bar high to admit only qualified students.

"Our requirements are high and full of pressure. We pick students who are great achievers with good results since high school."

For the advanced computing master's program at Tsinghua, a committee of senior professors decides on an international student's admission based on their application and a personal interview.

"I couldn't have gotten in with a GPA lower than 3.2," Jean says.

"I didn't have any doubts that I'd be accepted, but mostly because my grades were pretty OK, and I came from a very good school in the US with whom Tsinghua already has a relationship," Benjamin says.

The teacher of the program speaks highly of the students in the English-taught program. "The international students are highly motivated," Ma says. "Most of them have their own projects that they sometimes maintain over many years and recently even won competitions with."

When these global tech students graduate, more and more choose to stay in China. "China is at a good stage for IT. The students feel that they can have an impact here, not just earn a good salary," Ma says, explaining the phenomenon.

Some of them even start their own businesses. Entrepreneur Alvaro Montoya, 30, has created his own AI speech translation software.

"My dream is to make all Chinese-taught university classes available for an international audience," the graduate from the BIT says, who quit his job at Microsoft and a German start-up to focus on his project while doing an MBA at Tsinghua, which supports him with a scholarship.

But 10 years ago, Montoya was just a young and inexperienced "geek," fascinated with new technologies, but without perspective, working a side job as a driver in his hometown Barcelona. One of his clients was a high-ranking Huawei executive. The man gave him advice that would change his life forever: "Learn Chinese and come to China."

Liu Ruiwen contributed to this story

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