Science - September 29, 2005

The Chinese lessons

A joint bachelor’s degree programme with the Chinese Agricultural University (CAU): it seemed like a great way to make Wageningen UR stronger in the international arena and at the same time restore declining student numbers. But only a few months after the arrival of the first 74 Chinese BSc students, there were loud complaints to be heard from lecturers and Dutch students. Many of the newcomers hardly spoke any English and were having difficulties understanding the course content. They were even a source of danger during practicals. Now, two years later, the first BSc students from China have just graduated and things are looking up. Wb looks back.

During the 1990s the number of Dutch high school graduates studying in Wageningen declined steadily. The international master’s programmes on the other hand were popular and, after the bachelor’s-master’s degree structure was introduced in 2000, a plan was devised to offer bachelor’s programmes to international students as well. The result of this was cooperation with the CAU in Beijing.

The university had a reputation as the best agricultural university in China and expectations were high. ‘We should be glad that students of such a high level are coming to study at our university,’ were the words of project leader Theo Douma at the time in Wb. The agreement gave Wageningen a head start over other Dutch universities, and the intention was to strike similar deals with other foreign universities once the test run was deemed successful.

Hydrochloric acid
Things did not get that far however. The majority of the 74 Chinese students were not capable of participating fully in the second year of the Wageningen bachelor’s degree, even though they had already had two years of preparation in their own country. ‘They don’t have the basic knowledge and spend so much time asking the practical assistants questions, that the assistants have no time left for us,’ complained a Dutch student at the end of 2003 in Wb.

There were rumours that the students spent all night playing computer games. Moreover, their lack of laboratory skills led to a number of dangerous situations during practicals: one Chinese student spilled concentrated hydrochloric acid on his bare hand while using a pipette. Reports of bad grades led to consternation, particularly within the Chinese community.

It was not only their lack of basic knowledge, however: the Chinese students also had a language problem. Their English was much worse than expected. At that point Rien Bor, who does international education marketing for Wageningen, was brought into the project. Bor: ‘A number of the students indeed did not live up to our expectations. There was nothing in the contract that we had signed about being able to test the students ourselves. Now we know for example that widespread cheating took place during one of the English language tests in China, but once the students had arrived in Wageningen we could not send them back.’

After discussions with the CAU, a decision was taken to put a stop to students coming from China in 2004 and 2005, and also to give the students already in Wageningen more intensive supervision. The requirements for the English language tests in China were also made stricter. As a result only thirteen Chinese BSc students came to Wageningen last year, and just under thirty this year. These more recent generations of students are doing considerably better and because there are fewer of them, they also have better relations with their fellow students of other nationalities.

Zero study points
The first two BSc students of the Chinese who arrived in 2003 graduated recently. Not only did they manage to catch up from the month’s delay that they experienced at the start, they even did extra courses outside their BSc programme. It’s expected that about a third of this first group will also graduate soon. This group is performing at a level comparable to that of the average Dutch student. Of the remaining students, about half have been told that they may be able to obtain their bachelor’s degree. The other half has been advised to continue at Larenstein University of Professional Education or to return to China. Nevertheless, the majority of this group has registered once again this academic year in Wageningen. There is also one student in this group, however, who has not earned one single study point in the last two years.

Corine Nieuwenhuijzen, a fourth-year Biotechnology student and mentor of a group of CAU students, thinks that there is a lot of pressure on the students. ‘Most of the Chinese students have come here with the intention of getting their master’s degree here as well. That means they are dead set on getting their bachelor’s first. Their parents also have very high expectations as a consequence of the one-child policy in China. All hopes are pinned on that one child. Returning from China without a diploma is a terrible prospect.’

It is legally impossible to refuse entry to the students who are performing badly. What Wageningen University could do is refuse to renew the students’ visas when they expire in two years’ time.
But despite the problems of the past, supervisors, teachers and most students are optimistic about the future. Corine Nieuwenhuijzen: ‘The Dutch students who experienced the problems with the first group were very angry about what happened. Now it’s time to put that behind us. Most of the Chinese students are good and are motivated. They really want to get on.’

Lesson learned
The first two Chinese graduates, Zhao Jingjing and Dai Yue, agree. Zhao: ‘There are still some Dutch students that don’t want to work with Chinese students, because they think we are no good at group work. I hope that they’ll show a little more patience, and then they’ll see that this is not true. Dai adds: ‘China has become much more international in the last few years. There are now many foreigners living and working in China, and as a result the Chinese have more contact with other nationalities and are exposed to other cultures.’

As a result of the programme being put on hold, very few Chinese students will come to Wageningen in the coming two years. The CAU and Wageningen University are using this breathing space to make new agreements for the future. Bor: ‘We are now discussing with Van Hall-Larenstein to see whether we can combine the programmes we offer so that we can come to one joint agreement with the CAU. As far as I’m concerned we also need to be able to test the students more thoroughly in China first, before decide whether to let them come to the Netherlands.’

Wageningen University seems to have learned its lesson at least. Bor: ‘We will not be getting large numbers of undergraduates from abroad in the future. At present we are considering setting up joint degrees where we collaborate with a good partner in another country. Then we can make joint decisions about whether to allow students to come to Wageningen. That way we have a better idea of the kind of quality we are getting.’ The university is currently holding talks about collaboration of this kind, once again with a university in China. / JH