By R. L. Kirby PhD

Dr. Roy L. Kirby divides his work between teaching at the Eric Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, where he has taught management subjects and interpersonal communications since 1997, and Jilin University/Lambton College in Changchun, China, where he has focused on teaching management subjects since 2005-06.

The hungry pursuit of foreign education in past times meant going abroad. China sent people overseas before 1900, often to seek engineering expertise. These students sought for what was best so they could take it home and replicate it in China. Today, many Chinese families can send their children abroad – increasing disposable income and savings makes this possible. Aside from this major family investment in their sons and daughters’ careers, they are then assumed to be better able to look after their parents.

Chinese families assign value to perceived status and the accompanying measures (rankings) – so big-name universities are assumed to be desirable places to go and from which to graduate, with that name, that brand, on a CV. But this is only partly true. The experience in a big-name university does not always mean that a student, either foreign or domestic, will enjoy a good experience or benefit from it. For one thing, shocking though it may be to Chinese families, failing to graduate is possible, unlike most universities in Asia, where it is hard to get accepted, but graduation is taken almost for granted.

Western schools have, like most companies, tended to see China as a market, a huge market, to enter and bring prosperity at home. Western schools have imported students not as a cultural enrichment endeavour or a joint venture, but more as a budgetary balancing act. To Western schools this has become a winning business model – but there is little evidence that they take good care of imported students once their fees are paid; some report feeling abandoned, some say their professors make little or no attempt to integrate them into classes, or welcome input that is outside their home-country intellectual comfort zone. Such students may adapt, but most are an add-on to the usual norms of the host country. They often get lost, staying in their own little “Chinese bubble,” especially in big schools with huge classes. Chinese students have not been trained to collaborate, or to be creative, innovate, or to take risks. These deficiencies date back to 1949, when the newly empowered Communist party decided to model the educational system on the Soviet approach. Now, as a reflection of government interventions, reforms are aimed at the clear role for education systems in supplying talent to government and the private sector in an emerging knowledge economy.

Respect for the host nation and its culture is the key to launching and sustaining a harmonious partnership. Joint means joint – a sharing of ideas, technologies, means and ways of working together in a global context. Yet Westerners, with their worldview (sometimes quite ethnocentric), take an approach to foreign relations – and joint ventures in business and education – almost as intellectual missionaries. As writers noted in Foreign Affairs as long ago as 1990, from the time of Lord Palmerston’s efforts to get the Chinese to accept the supposedly superior conventions of Western diplomacy in the mid-1800’s, China seems to evoke in others, particularly Americans, a desire to serve as China’s teachers, and thereby presumably help China to improve itself. Let’s not get caught in an ethnocentric trap?