Friday, March 14, 2014, 10:35
They're flooding in, so open the gates
By China Daily

It wasn't too long ago that a multinational company sending an executive to China would have considered it a "hardship posting" - the perceived hardship alleviated by generous living allowances and attractive perks.

But as the new century dawned and China increasingly became a key market for most multinationals, savvy executives - both senior and junior - didn't mind seeing those allowances and perks cut just to burnish their CVs with a vital qualification: a stint, or longer, in a place where careers were being made and places on the board beckoned.

Around the same time, young Chinese decided that they, too, needed a blank filled in on their CVs: an education overseas, typically in the US or Europe. Their numbers swelled as they were welcomed by cash-strapped universities around the world, their presence ubiquitous in campuses ranging from Nottingham to New York, and Sydney to Singapore.

This two-way traffic has since continued, more or less; but now, there is a new dynamic in this educational matrix.

China is now, according to a recent report, the third-most favored destination for international students after the US and the UK - a startling statistic little reported in either Chinese or overseas media.

According to data on international student mobility in 2012-13 released by the US-based Institute of International Education, China had 328,000 students, leapfrogging countries such as Australia, Germany and France. The country seeks to raise that figure to 500,000 by 2020.

The authors of the report, Student Mobility and the Internationalization of Higher Education, write: "While this has resulted in a somewhat smaller market share for top host countries, it is nonetheless a positive development as it has brought more countries in the field of international education and has changed the relationship between sending and receiving countries from a unidirectional 'brain drain' type of mobility to one of dynamic, mutual exchange."

The trio add: "They (Asian economies) are likely to face the dilemma of how to increase the capacity of their higher education systems to provide adequate opportunities for their expanding college-age population while also accommodating incoming international students and engaging in the type of international education exchange necessary in today's globally competitive world."

It is a happy dilemma China should embrace, for many reasons.

China wants to go global. What better way than to have foreigners pay for the privilege to do the job of spreading their culture and language for a fraction of the cost of running the Confucius Institutes around the world and generating goodwill in the bargain?

Chinese companies want to go global. What better way than to find self-funding interns learning the ways of the Middle Kingdom and to employ them in their home countries?

Foreign students want to go global. What better way than to hitch their wagons to the inevitable rise of China and have a head start in ensuring their futures? So why not let them pay that premium?

Peggy Blumenthal, the Institute of International Education's senior counselor to the US president, says in an e-mail: "China's importance as the world's second-largest economy, as well as its long history clearly draws the attention of students and professors around the world. They realize the importance of learning more about China and building academic links with its many universities."

China should appreciate this, and act.

The country's embassies and consulates around the world should have student-friendly desks to facilitate the entry of foreign students to do what they wish to do: summer courses, a semester or a year, undergraduate or graduate.

While in China, universities should give consideration to their possible lack of proficiency in Chinese.

Most importantly, foreign students should be given visas for internships and possible jobs.

As Li Yong, director of international students affairs at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, says: "The Chinese government is putting great effort, especially financial effort, in welcoming international students. But I think what needs to be improved is the job-landing situation for these international students."

One of my three nephews, whose parents are in Kenya and is studying in the UK, plans to check out China in the summer. Just in case. He has a good case.