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The Chinese Academic Connection: Benefits and Costs

One of the distinguishing characteristics of American higher education has been the geographic diversity of students, as U.S. universities attract large numbers from all over the world. Especially dramatic over the last decade has been the growth in enrollments from China. A decade ago, far fewer than 100,000 Chinese students studied at U.S. universities. Now the number is around 350,000. Similar increases have occurred with other international students, such as from India, but the Chinese migration growth is particularly dramatic.

Many of the increased numbers of academic Chinese migrants come from affluent families –the Chinese elite. They mostly pay the full tuition fee. As state funding for many state universities fell over the past decade, the upsurge in Chinese enrollments helped fill the financial gap. According to The Economist, about 2,300 attend the University of California at Berkeley, six times the number of a decade ago, and most are paying high fees (more than $45,000 annually). Some of these students ultimately end up staying in the U.S., adding importantly to our stock of human capital and helping invigorate our economy.

A generation ago, the stereotype of a Chinese student was that he or she was extremely poor, but also quite hard working, often achieving academic distinction despite significant English language deficiencies. Today, many Chinese students are affluent, driving flashy cars, the children of wealthy and politically powerful families that have gained affluence since China at least partially embraced capitalism beginning in the late 1970s. Like the children of nouveau riche everywhere, some of this new generation of students seem somewhat spoiled, and certainly less likely to be hard-working students. They have seemingly caught the American student disease of playing hard and working less diligently than their ancestors who studied before them did. There is still, of course, a significant number of serious and quite competent Chinese students, especially in the STEM disciplines.

And the U.S.-China intellectual trade goes both ways. I just talked to an American student completing her first year at New York University’s Shanghai branch, where about one-half the students are Chinese and the remainder comes from all over the world, including a goodly number of Americans. Aside from intellectual and potential long-term economic benefits, it is probably likely these deep cultural exchanges promote international understanding and mitigate, albeit only slightly, international tensions arising from national rivalries.

There are, to be sure, some issues that get only modest press attention but which may be significant in magnitude. First, there are the Confucius Institutes, centers to promote Chinese language and cultural training financed by the Chinese government and located at scores of American universities, many of which welcome them for providing relatively cheap instruction, especially in languages. Groups like the National Association of Scholars have developed some strong evidence that the Confucius Institutes try to promote a perspective on Chinese life, history and thought that is distorted to fit the agitprop of the Chinese Communist political aristocracy, and that they suppress diversity of viewpoints. Concerns such as these are leading some schools to back off commitments to these centers. Similarly, attempts by Chinese students to suppress the quasi-religious group Falun Gong on American campuses is inconsistent with American traditions of religious and academic freedom.

Others have been concerned about the harassment of Chinese students by the Chinese government or other Chinese students over perceived inappropriate political views (involving criticism of the governing Chinese regime). And then there is the issue of spying and theft of intellectual property in research-intensive institutions, requiring considerable use of U.S. intelligence resources to counteract. This sometimes provokes dilemmas within American universities: is it appropriate and ethical for U.S. professors and administrators to provide information to law enforcement or American intelligence agencies about Chinese students perceived to be potential security threats or stealers of American intellectual property? Is spying on your students appropriate even if it is to help protect your country?

Like most American academics and administrators, I think the increased presence of international students and faculty on U.S. campuses has been a positive development. It has expanded the horizons of students and increased awareness of the positive welfare implications of international interchange in ideas as well as goods and services. But like almost everything in life, there are costs as well as benefits.

Richard K. Vedder is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ohio University, and co-author (with Lowell Gallaway) of the award-winning Independent Institute book, Out of Work: Unemployment and Government in Twentieth-Century America.

From Richard K. Vedder
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