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Study Abroad is on the Rocks

Sep 06, 2022

Study abroad programs around the world were rendered dead in the water by the pandemic, and China was no exception. There are tentative signs of things coming back to life, but so far it’s only a trickle. Pandemics and politics are hard to predict, but an optimistic view of the positive impacts of cultural exchange through education suggests that things are bound to get better. 

There are already Americans studying inside China despite the challenges—the crux of the problem at the moment is the drastic reduction of visas granted and the high costs of international travel. Some programs have closed entirely, others are operating in an austere and limited way, but the new normal is utterly unlike the old normal. Courses are held online, dorms are empty and the unpredictable path of Covid infection can make the best of times suddenly seem like the worst of times. 

“We make it easy for international students to apply to Chinese universities.” 

That’s the slogan of China Admissions, an online platform designed to facilitate the process of studying abroad in China. It’s a respected outfit dedicated to promoting China study. However, the latest update from its Beijing-based team, which is partnered with over 200 colleges in China, is less bubbly: 

●  If you are applying to study in China, we strongly advise you to make other plans, so you have options in case you’re not able to come to China. 

●  If you are looking for options to study outside of China, or want to transfer out of China, we have launched Global Admissions to help you! 

China Admissions describes China as “partially open,” noting that some students have been allowed to return under certain circumstances, and they express the hope that things will be better next year. 

There was an upward tick in hope when Premier Li Keqiang announced earlier this summer that “all students can return to China.” A noble thought, but easier said than done. The intake remains sporadic and excruciatingly slow. Li’s July 2022 announcement made headlines in India and is of great concern in countries such as Thailand, Pakistan and Nepal where prospective students have been stymied in their China study quest due to strict border controls. 

An additional hurdle to study abroad making a quick comeback in China is the reduction of flights to and from. Astronomical airfares are a considerable obstacle, with tickets sometimes priced over ten thousand dollars for desirable flights out of New York to Shanghai or Beijing. 

Some study abroad programs such as CET, which just a few years ago was expanding vigorously in China, have decided to close down their study centers in Beijing, Kunming and Hangzhou, while others, if operating at all, are pretty much reduced to offering Mandarin classes and lectures online. 

Even in-country programs that are still intact, due to the presence of strong Chinese partners, such as Duke Kunshan and NYU Shanghai, offer their classes online, and the lengthy and arduous city-wide lockdown of Shanghai and its environs earlier this year only made things more glum. 

NYU-Shanghai Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman appeared in a Xinhua video recorded during the Shanghai lockdown on April 21, 2022, in which he tried to alleviate fears about the severity of the lockdown, noting that classes were still being conducted online, but other NYU staff were less sanguine. 

A handful of well-connected programs, such as the Schwarzman Center at Tsinghua have been able to wrangle visas for their students, but that came only after a harrowing low point where the program was looking at relocating to Dubai (students didn’t buy it). 

At the moment, the name of the game is the X1 visa which is being issued to an increasing number of students in keeping with Premier Li’s pledge. However, the X1 is generally applicable only to full time study which leaves short-term programs and American hybrid programs in the lurch. 

This is potentially good news for year-long programs such as the Yenching program at Peking University which is gearing up to resume things in early 2023, but summer programs, the most popular choice for American students and a key driver of interest in China are not likely to come back to life any time soon. 

David Moser, a University of Michigan trained linguist who has decades of experience teaching American students in Beijing, says things are quiet at his home campus of Beijing Capital Normal University. He told me that the big multipurpose building that used to house hundreds of foreign students in the past, including direct enroll students and academic exchange students “has been almost entirely empty for the last three years.” 

As to the current state of study abroad, he cited a recent experience in which he gave a series of online lectures from his home in Beijing to the students studying online at the Jesuit-affiliated Beijing Center. “The administrator was in Russia, and the students were scattered all over the world.”  

Moser’s devotion to the teaching and study of China is admirable, but his own rich experience of living in Beijing for many years raises the question of just what constitutes study abroad. Not all types of education are reducible to the Zoom format. The in-person and immersive element of study abroad is central, not peripheral to the concept. 

Despite discouraging trends, studying China in China is as important as it’s ever been, perhaps more so, as Washington and Beijing vie for strategic high ground, business and influence around the world. 

Prudent engagement for both sides going forward requires good data, accurate analysis and an understanding of the human dimension. 

There’s a long-term risk that U.S.-China relations will lose a stabilizing reservoir of goodwill due to the precipitous drop in exchanges if present trends continue. 

If U.S. policymakers on both sides succumb to narrow nationalist visions, while operating in the dark, and make inaccurate judgements on account of it, conflict between the U.S. and China is bound to break out, if only out of ignorance. 

Not all conflict can be avoided or alleviated through educational endeavors, but promoting cultural exchange is a good place to start curbing the downward trend and mending relations in general. 

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