Students go East for cheap living and bright future
The Times January 06, 2007
Marketable way to learn a language
City firms look for Chinese speakers
Beer costs 30p a bottle. A good meal is 60p. Student accommodation is
about £100 a month and the career benefits could be priceless.
Welcome to the new destination for forward-thinking young people.
The number of Britons studying in China has more than doubled in
three years, from 650 to 1,400. They have realised what many more soon
will: that China offers university life on the cheap and stands them in
excellent stead in the job market when they return.
Employers’ organisations have for some time bemoaned a shortage of
linguists among graduates. The decline of French and German studies in
Britain would be of limited consequence, said Sir Digby Jones, former
chief executive of the CBI, “if young people were instead learning
Spanish or Mandarin”.
Now graduates emerging from university without a second language are
looking to postgraduate study in China to fill the deficiency and
achieve an increasingly marketable CV as Western businesses expand their
operations in China.
Anna Gallagher, 22, an Oxford graduate, taught English in Jiangsu
province during her gap year in 2003 and fell in love with the country.
She has now returned to study Mandarin in Beijing for a year before she
takes up a graduate job with an asset management company. “In the
interview, all the questions were about China,” she said. “My CV was on
the desk — all the China stuff was circled. It definitely helped.”
James Howell, 23, is studying at Tsinghua University in Beijing on a
year out from an economics degree at Manchester. Chinese and economics
is a potent combination. He sees it as a place for low-risk
experimentation and invaluable experience: he has started a company
exporting engraved crystals to Europe.
George Lee-Corbin, 21, is on a year’s Chinese language programme in
Beijing. He wants to work for an NGO but is prepared to work in
management consultancy to earn enough money for a masters. In China he
may not have to. He is already in talks with an NGO over an idea for
English learning aids. “Whether it’s because I’m a foreigner or because
the society is moving so fast, the opportunities are why I love it
here,” he said.
All three enrolled and paid for their courses online. Tuition fees
are about £1,700, and accommodation is regal by student standards. For
transport, a bicycle is £6. A language test in the first week decided
whether they would be learning how to say “hello” in class one, or
discussing the merits of Chinese property subsidy abolition in class 30.
The only prerequisite was a smattering of A levels, “good moral
character and good health”.
Success is not guaranteed and the language is not easy to learn. Back
home on the job market, graduates are increasingly up against native
speakers. “A growing proportion of applicants for graduate jobs in
finance within the UK are South and East Asian nationals,” Richard
Moore, a head of graduate recruitment at UBS, said. Though banks are
expanding their operations in China, most look to staff offices there
with local recruits. At the hub of operations in London, Mandarin is, of
“In three to five years, perhaps these students will be seen as torch
bearers,” Mr Moore said. “It’s financially viable, and they gain
language skills pertinent to the fastest-growing economy, which is a
very positive addition to their CV. Within the UK, however, it is not
yet the differentiator that second European languages can be.”
At the recruitment company Michael Page, Andrew Breach is looking for
a Briton fluent in Mandarin to head retail banking in Britain for the
Bank of China. “Mandarin is certainly more in demand than it was,” he
said. “So many firms now have big emerging market teams working on
The only catch he can see is that “Mandarin is not French”. Most
Chinese words consist of two syllables, each represented in their
written form by Chinese characters, of which you will need to know at
least 2,000 to read a newspaper. Different combinations of characters
make different words, but each of these syllables can be said in four or
occasionally five different “tones”, all of which alter the meaning.
Yang Song, a language instructor at the Institute for Chinese Studies
in Oxford, used to teach British students at university in China. “They
would say, ‘Please may I ask?’ and say the third instead of the fourth
tone in the second syllable of ‘ask’,” she said. “So they would say,
‘Please may I kiss?’” She could laugh it off in the classroom, but in
the boardroom it could be disastrous.
Today’s British students in China have it easy compared with some of
their predecessors. Frances Wood, 58, curator of the Chinese collections
in the British Library, arrived in Beijing with nine other British
students in 1975, and recalled: “We found Peking University governed by
a Revolutionary Committee of workers and peasants determined that we
should not become experts divorced from the masses.” They were sent on
“labour trips” to work in the fields, to factories to build train
engines, and to canteens to wait on dumbstruck peasants. Letters and
phone calls were censored and food was rationed. Chinese students
avoided them for fear of being interrogated for speaking to a foreigner.
Annette Lord, now a Fellow at Oxford, arrived in Beijing in 1979. “If
you did get friendly with locals, it was very dangerous for them,” she
said. “You had to meet after dark in the park, but foreigners walk
differently and our eyes can be a bit of a giveaway.”