Chinese Student = The University Sectors Golden Goose
It has been a year of enforced online teaching, and a number of UK universities say they are going to continue to teach digitally, how do Chinese students in the UK feel after a year of learning under Covid?
Yimeng Wu, a student from BSc computer science, University of Liverpool, curls up in her recliner and yawns, pressing one hand hard against her stinging eyeballs after staring at the screen all day long and pounding her stiff shoulders with the other. PPT slides played page after page on the hot laptop screen, but no one was showing up to the class.
This is her sixth week of online teaching in the UK. Her eyes have become painful and photophobic because of the prolonged exposure to the computer, and her passion to learn has gradually worn off.
“I didn’t come to the UK to watch a year of recorded screens in a tiny room,” said Yimeng. “I was looking forward to doing projects with top-notch tutors and other students, and writing my paper in the red brick building with slowing snow outside the window over Christmas, but apparently that fell through.”
Nearly 14,000 Chinese students like Yimeng, who have to pay double tuition fees of UK students from ￡12,000-￡20,000（average 140,000 RMB）per year expecting to get a high-quality education that can help them with their careers pursuits are facing the same predicament – trapped in small student flats and talking to a computer.
“The learning atmosphere is not as good as before, which makes it’s hard to be efficient and motivated,” said Yimeng. “In the past, you could feel that your study and life were two separate parts and they individually worked well, but now it a mess.” Before Covid, she shuttled between one teaching building to another for different courses and to discuss with classmates. But with the online courses, all the sections in her life were forced to knit together, confined to a small room of 14 square meters.
“Many of our teachers just read the PPT in class. People kept skipping class and no one turns on the camera,” said Yimeng. “It’s a worse aloneness than having to stay in my room – you know others are doing the same things with you but can’t get an interaction.” After several instances of expecting to see some other faces, but where her own appeared in solitude among a dozen black squares, she stopped turning on the camera.
But the university does not have a corresponding management system- neither the seminar nor the lectures require students to sign in, whereas, in previous years, they were required to register their attendance records. “If you want every day is a holiday,” said Yimeng.
However, this was not what she had been told about nor was it what she expected. The University of Liverpool initially promised that they would maintain laboratory work and tutorials in a face-to-face format to maximize the maintenance of teaching quality.
Nevertheless, when Yimeng had just landed at Manchester airport, an email from the university came through saying that all planning would be done online and some scheduled experimental project was also cancelled.
“I didn’t mind coming to the campus as it was the same online courses anyway if I stayed at home. But it made me feel been cheated,” said Yimeng. To reach the Liverpool campus, she needs to take a train from Suzhou to Shanghai and then transfer to Liverpool by train after the 18-hour international flight to Manchester Airport. The entire process takes at least 26 hours.
“While overcoming the disappointment and arranging a good self-living life is the biggest challenge for those with poor study habits and self-management,” said Yimeng. Faced with the sudden complete changes and freedom, she also misses many lessons at the beginning.
“It’s regret now when I think about it,” said Yimeng. “I need to be more self-disciplined and proactive and we also need more help from all sides. If the university can have the corresponding sign-in procedures like before, and all tutors can encourage students or stipulate that the camera must be turned on and have more interaction in class it would be better.”
“We got feedback from student serves that it’s really difficult to get in the mind to learning at home,” said Dewi Parry, the Learning Technology Manager from Cardiff University. “From a learning framework point of view, what is really important is how to make the environment more effective to learn in.”
Learning on the campus with timetable students will have an actual sense of learning, said Dewi. With this in mind, Cardiff University created module maps, so students can understand the key activities they need to focus on each week. With a more efficient virtual learning environment, they hope students can enter a study mood more easily.
“I think the problem I’ve got with it is it’s still too fresh. You know with dozens of people involved from across the university. You don’t really get that many programs, how we managed to actually get the whole university online is the problem at the beginning,” said Dewi
“The university adjusted a lot of their methods, and the teachers have also made an effort, but the effect does not meet our original expectations,” said Yuxin Mo, a Chinese male from Newcastle University, facing the biggest challenge of communicating across the screen.
“It’s like talking to a robot,” said Yuxin. “I often lost my Internet connection, particularly on rainy days, and you know, it’s always raining in the UK, so it’s difficult to communicate.”
” Before Covid, simple eye contact can give me the actual connection with the tutor, but sitting in front of the screen, I now feel isolated,” said Yimeng. During the one-hour course, after 20 minutes, she began to play with the small plants next to the computer with a sluggish look. After that, her whole person shrank lower and lower and she finally crawled on the table.
Last year, 56% of students reported a lack of further technical support, according to the Office-For-Student UK. Meanwhile, for students who are undertaking distance learning in China, this is even more common.
“Sometimes it will take me one or two weeks to find free access to the perfect source I found. The VPN that the university offers us is frequently broken, and the responses from the IT department has become slower as they receive more and more complaints,” said Fang Qi, who paid the same amount of money as Yimeng did but chooses to study in China. After a few efforts, she bought a new VPN which cost about 900 RMB per year.
“It’s not a lot of money but I shouldn’t be forced to spend it after all the money I’ve paid,” said Fang.
UK Universities received £21.5bn in student fees in 2019-20, more than a third more than the £15.5bn they got in 2014-15, reported The Guardian.Yet nearly half of all students thought their degree offered poor value for that money.
“I felt I didn’t learn as much as I did in previous years,” said Zaixi, a student from BA Sociology and Politics, University of Glasgow. She living in the UK since 2018. “How much I can learn and whether I will get good grades depends on my self-study.”
Timely topics and keeping up with current events are particularly important for her major. However, the pre-recorded lessons are not new nor do they reflect what is going on in real life to a sufficient degree, which means she needs to spend extra time studying topics that should have been learned in class on her own.
Due to lack of basic support of online sources, ineffective communication and low-motivation learning, nearly half of students (45%) of the survey from UK National Union of Student (NUS) were dissatisfied with the education quality that they received, with less than a half of students maintaining the same academic performance as they achieved before the Covid-19.
“The identity and certificate of returnees can still bring me stronger employment competitiveness. However, paying more and more tuition fees but enjoying less and less teaching quality is unreasonable,” said Yimeng.
“I would defer enrolment for a year or choose to study in another country,” said Zaixi. ‘I chose to study in the UK because it’s cost-effective to get a world-class master’s degree in one year, but if the experience during a pandemic is much more diminished than during a normal year, I don’t think it’s still wise to sacrifice quality to save time.”
Students who are on the wait-and-see attitude as Zaixi are not in the minority. According to the survey of Chinese students’ will to continue their study in the UK from the British Council, more than half of Chinese students (60%) could cancel their UK study plans.
“What we’ve always said is we don’t want videos to replace stuff. It’s never going to replace the member of staff who has a lot of all of that knowledge and the value-added that they bring going to teach,” said Dewi. “What we want to do is focus on what worked well online, we’re trying to promote it using the best of both.”
In the coming term, all the universities are planning a continuation of the “blended learning” approach, where smaller tutorials and seminars are delivered face-to-face but with some teaching staying online.
“I pursued its practical course,” said Yimeng. The expectation for a new study defeated the worry of the university’s promise may break again, she decided to go to UCL for a master’s degree in MSc Medical Robotics and Artificial Intelligence next month. “There will be a lot of practical anatomies of the human body and manipulating medical robots to perform surgery. If it’s online it would be weird.”