Twelve years ago on the resumption of classes in China after the Spring Festival holiday break I would ask my students about their holiday. Most would go home, and home was somewhere in the same province. ‘I slept late; I ate; I watched TV or movies’ were common responses.
Now, the response is very different. In one week I received emails from two students. 'Dr Fleur, I just want to share with you. I am your student, now studying in Queensland, and I have just visited your home state of Tasmania for six days. Here are some pictures so you will feel less homesick when you are in China.' Eight pictures were attached.
A freshman student wrote: 'Dr Fleur, how are you? I just want to share my achievement. I climbed to the summit of a 5,000 metre snow mountain in Sichuan. I had some trouble with the altitude- breathing and headache, but I am so happy to achieve this.' Anthony attached six photos of the spectacular snowscape, and the proud moment at the summit.
These emails are indicators of the dramatic changes sweeping China. In the fifteen years since I have been teaching in China, I have observed both education, technology and tourism trends. I had noticed a subtle shift between 2000 and 2005. But in the last decade, that subtle shift has become a wide unstoppable river. From the mountains to the sea, and beyond China’s borders, Chinese are on the move.
Travel trends in China
Twelve years ago, Chinese still had many restrictions placed on their leisure travel abroad. Only 29 countries had ‘Approved Destination Status’ (ADS), which meant designated agency organised tours for groups of five or more mainland Chinese. In order to reduce the risk of overstaying visas, missing group members and human trafficking, travellers often had to pay a ‘bond’ of up to US$6,000 and surrender their passport to the agency and confirm their return to China within one week.
Because of fierce competition for the Chinese market, travel agencies would heavily discount costs, promoting ‘zero fees’, but aim to recoup losses by including compulsory shopping tours with commissions for the tour leaders. Many Chinese resigned themselves to this fact of travel, but resistance to pressure tactics and a maturing market has meant that agencies have to be more sophisticated to deal with the growing demand for independent and individual tastes of a new educated élite. By 2005 the number of countries approved for Chinese leisure travel had expanded to ninety countries.
In a survey I conducted that year on overseas travel with students of the new University of Nottingham Ningbo campus, just two percent responded that they had travelled outside of China, and mostly to nearby Asian destinations, such as Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Malaysia. If they did travel to Europe it was a short, but intensive and exhausting trip, such as ‘five countries in ten days’. I am sure if I did a similar survey today, that percentage would be considerably higher. Chinese have much greater freedom to travel abroad now, without the need to pay hefty deposits as a guarantee of return and will resist ‘shopping tours’. My long term Chinese friend travelled in a family group with his son and daughter-in-law to Hawaii last year, and to Sabah, Malaysia the previous year. They are part of the more than 100 million international trips in 2014 made by Chinese, who are now the world’s biggest overseas spenders at US$208 billion, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
The surge in outbound travel can be shown in travel statistics from China to Indonesia. The first organised leisure tours from China to Indonesia only commenced in March 2002. Indonesian travel statistics for that year indicated that there were just over 3,600 visitors combined from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. By 2014, the China market grew to be the second largest behind Australia, with 387,533 arrivals, a 25 per cent increase on the previous year, reported by Bali Update. The biggest challenge now for Indonesian travel agencies is to combine specialist in-depth local knowledge with fluency in Mandarin language skills.
Last Spring Festival, five freshmen boys travelled independently to experience the Snow Festival in Sapporo, Japan. Last summer, one of my second year girls went as a volunteer teacher to Kenya with an international student association; another went independently to Thailand to work on an organic farm, whilst another had a one semester work experience in Disneyworld Florida, and another was on a student exchange program in Germany and travelled to several nearby countries. Students approach me for references to support their applications for study in Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, France, Spain, Germany, United Kingdom, Australia and the USA. These students are hard-working, talented and have such a drive and optimistic attitude. I am privileged to support them to achieve their dreams. With increasing opportunities for intercultural exchanges within China, changes in government policy, relaxed travel rules, easier visa accessibility, and increasing disposable incomes, the desire for exploring beyond the local neighbourhood is able to be realised.
Education trends in China
Reflecting on changes in education in China, a number of trends can be identified. Since the open and reform policies of 1978 until the end of 2013, more than three million Chinese students have studied overseas. More than one million are currently overseas, and the return to China rate is about 73 percent, according to a report by the Jiangsu Education Department. Within China, the number of students enrolled in higher education has increased dramatically. In 2003, one in three persons between the age of 19-23 years was enrolled in higher education; that ratio has increased to two in three, according to UNESCO statistics.
In the last decade and a half, the number of foreign students studying in China has also steadily increased. In 2013, there was an 8.5% increase on the previous year, and 356,500 foreign students from 200 countries were studying in a wide range of institutions across 31 provinces, cities and autonomous regions.
The rapid expansion of higher education places since the late 1990s and choice of both Chinese- state and private institutions and foreign university presences, commencing with the University of Nottingham, Ningbo China campus in 2004, the 1+1 model Xi’an Jiatong-Liverpool University in Suzhou and the 1+N model Sino-British College in Shanghai, the new American campuses in China as well as many offshore programs offered in partner colleges and universities, will push change in education models and a shift from teacher and exam-centric models to student-centric and flexible modes of delivery in this new phase of internationalisation.
The successful conduct of two mega-events, namely the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 and the six-month long 2010 Shanghai Expo, promoted the new China to the world, with detailed attention to security and safety, superb athletic and cultural performances, and ability to be welcoming and warm hosts. Students who volunteered during these events told of long periods of training and strict discipline, but the rewards in individual and national pride were enormous. Citizens of Beijing and Shanghai also benefited, not only from the cultural exchanges, but also from the vastly improved infrastructure and services. The success attracts more people to China for travel, education and business and inspires confidence in local people to have bigger dreams.
Combined trends driving a learning revolution
The rapid expansion of infrastructure, technology and services and the ability of Chinese to travel, and their desire and value for higher education, supported by government policy and big dreams drive a new sense of optimism and prosperity that is within reach of ever growing numbers. My hopes and dreams for the new China are that this prosperity enables a more equitable distribution of wealth, with socially inclusive policies and improved services and opportunities right across China.
In the first class of each semester, I ask students to complete a short questionnaire. Each class has about 40-50 students. I find now that about half the class come from other provinces, and less than a handful are from the city where the campus is located (Zhuhai). The others come from many other parts of Guangdong and Hong Kong (a 70 minute ferry ride from Zhuhai). I also find that there is a small sprinkling of international students – Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Spain, USA. It’s a far cry from single province, mainland Chinese only students in a class of twelve years ago.
Twelve years ago few students had mobile phones or laptops. They relied on desktop computers with plug-in connections. Most of their assignments were handwritten. Now most students have up-to-date laptops and smart-phones. It is accepted that their assignments will be computer generated. The mobile phone innovations, wireless technology, credit card and internet accessibility, widespread popularity of wechat, weibo and on-line communities and ease of sharing have fuelled changes in both travel and education. Students now can access MOOC (Mass open on-line courses). Outside the traditional teacher-led classes, students are creating their own learning revolutions.
They demonstrate confidence to have their own dreams and ability to realise them within the collective Chinese Dream envisioned by President Xi Jinping, considered internationally and domestically as one of the best contemporary political leaders. Against the backdrop of social stability, progressive reforms, and technology, travel and education seismic shifts, China holds much promise for a bright future.
Confident, ‘can-do’ students from Sun Yat-sen University; studying at the University of Queensland 2015-2016.
Between 2000-2015, the author lived in Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Henan as well as Guangdong province.
As a gentle provocateur of positive change,