By Greg Philo, the research director of Glasgow University Media Unit (THE GUARDIAN, 29/03/07):
We are in the middle of the biggest educational movement in history. Hundreds of thousands of young people are travelling to be educated abroad. They are led by the Chinese, for whom a foreign education is highly prized. There now are over 50,000 Chinese students in Britain – mostly the children of the elite and the rich – and the numbers studying abroad are predicted to double.So what happens to the beliefs and values of these young people when confronted by a culture so different from their own? Staying in Britain produces extensive reflection about both British and Chinese society, as a new study of recent graduates by the British Council has found. Our approach to politics, sexuality, equality and rights look very different from back home. They are amazed to see cartoons that are rude about Tony Blair.
Students’ knowledge before they arrive is often limited. Many are expecting a country of gentlemen, walking sticks and top hats. As one respondent put it, her image of Britain was “posh garden parties, traditional English afternoon tea and the royal family”.
What they actually encounter can leave them shocked. They see young people drunk and out of control. One student commented: “There is an emptiness in nightlife – party, party and nothing else. I thought there would be something special in culture – people would speak about plays or stories. I thought it would be a garden of thinking.”
Not all young people were seen in this way, and older generations were thought to have good manners. The students noted that the British also had the ability to have a good time and relax, while in China people worried incessantly about their children or their parents. Part of the reason for this difference was the success of the British system of welfare and social care, said the students. There were many comments along the lines of “you can feel confident when you are old”. These statements hinted at a deeper truth, in that they were all made by women.
In China the position of women is less secure than in Britain, and many feel great pressure to be married before the age of 30. One pointed to a Chinese saying: “A man of 30 is like a blossoming branch, a woman of 30 is like old bean shells.” Some female participants were intensely aware of how their job opportunities would be affected by their age and attractiveness – what is referred to in China as “the beauty economy”. There was approval of the idea that women in Britain could go to university at the age of 40 or 50 to retrain.
But such relationships are likely to change, partly as a result of pressure from highly educated women. The number of these who study abroad is being expanded because of the intense focus on education in Chinese society, but also as an unintended consequence of the one-child policy. In male-dominated societies, the resources of the family for education tend to be focused on boys. But in China, where the one-child policy works, each family has a 50% chance of the only child being female – and because this is an only child, there is a concentration of resources.
There are large numbers of young Chinese women now in universities in Britain and other countries. This is creating a constituency to demand more equal rights in careers, interpersonal relations and individual development.
Chinese students come to Britain for the quality of its education system. The experience of living in Britain also means that they can explore how their conditions might change, for themselves and for the future of their own country.