The emerging option

Updated February 08, 2019

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TAQI is a young banker working for a large local bank in Karachi. With a relevant degree from IBA his career is set to flourish in the years to come. However, Taqi has another feather in the cap that many young Pakistanis are increasingly looking for; he got his Master’s degree from China.

When we talk of higher education, China is the latest go-to destination for Pakistanis. It wasn’t always so. As the roots of our education system lie with Western practices and the fact that the premier language of education is English, it was always the West that the students yearned to go to. Europe, including the UK and North America were the only places that Pakistani students with a flourishing career in the mind went to. Then came Australia. And the investment paid off.

One look at the higher management of all the leading companies in the country and financial institutions will settle the case in favour of the Western universities. Scanning through the job opportunities, ‘foreign graduates’ is by default assumed to be referring to some Western seat of learning. However, there is now a new flavour being added; that of China.

The definition of foreign universities now accepts Chinese seats of learning as well. Given the importance of CPEC and the continued influx of Chinese investments in the country, it is but natural that Chinese education starts getting accepted in Pakistan. Again, this is a natural tilt as seen by our experiences earlier. Western education was highly sought after by West-based business conglomerates and their Pakistani subsidiaries. So why not Chinese education for China-based businesses?

Studying in China seems to be one of the better things to do for those seeking foreign education. There are many takers in Corporate Pakistan today for those having exposure to the distinct language and culture.

The Chinese government too has been promoting Chinese education and universities. Though judging by the generous scholarships and grants, it does not look like its education-based tourism that is on offer there. It is more like China is through with the process of getting its educational institutions aligned with the global business needs, which, in turn, are after all aligned with the needs of the second largest economy of the world. It is this advantage that Taqi opted for.

“A few years ago I was fishing for a university to go to when I came across Chinese universities. I didn’t know much and neither did my peers. Of course, we all had planned for the future in the US or the UK. But somehow it made sense for me to apply in China. It is a growing economy and is being fuelled by its local workforce that includes highly educated locals. And that got me thinking about giving it a shot.”

After clearing an entrance test in Islamabad, Taqi was on his way to Shanghai, China, to study at a leading university there to get his higher education. “I was scolded, warned by all my near and dear ones of the grave mistake I was supposedly making. China was definitely not in anyone’s good books … at least anyone belonging to the generation before me. And the first day that I landed in Shanghai, I almost regretted the decision myself!”

Studying in China is now the ‘in’ thing. Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong remain the most popular study-abroad destinations. Other popular locations in China include Chengdu, Tianjin, and Kunming. And all these have one thing in common: the Chinese language or the Mandarin.

Says Taqi: “When I arrived in Shanghai, I was taken aback as I couldn’t find anyone who could communicate in English. There were Chinese everywhere, in their millions. On my first day there, I really thought what a blunder I had made.”

China is a huge country, which spans over 22 provinces and five autonomous regions, many with their own distinct culture, dialect and way of life. Anywhere you go it will offer something unique and different — so research carefully, choose wisely, and travel a lot while you study abroad in China!

 Common academic areas of study in China include maths, economics, engineering, political science, urban development, and, of course, Mandarin. Programmes available in major Chinese cities usually combine academic study with a variety of intensive language lessons and culturally immersive opportunities.

The language barrier can be a very real obstacle to breaching China’s increasingly prominent national university system. While world-class institutions like Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Fudan University are the crown jewel in the eye of every Chinese national student, most classes are generally taught in Mandarin, which make enrollment a challenge for international students not studying Chinese.

However, many of these schools do reach out with international programmes to attract foreign students, and some subject areas, such as international business, are often taught in English. And then there is always the ‘pengyou’, a local friend who will be your friend and your guide as well.

In Taqi’s case it was a fellow student who volunteered and helped the newly arrived Pakistani sort out his issues. “This Chinese student helped me settle in my dorm, open a bank account, find my classes, basically he was my guide. In exchange he wanted help in improving his English, which I gladly helped him with.”

But language is only a barrier for those who are entering the country for the first time. If you want to learn a language or a culture, the best way to do it is to go and live within that society.

Though basic, entry-level Chinese lessons are part and parcel of the courses on offer, the more you hang out, challenge yourself and try to communicate with others, the more you will learn. Just listen and catch common expressions like ‘Nihao’ or ‘XieXie’ and then try to say them with your friend.

The people on the streets too are friendly. The ingrained hospitality there always forces others to help the foreigner within the group. Yes, unlike the West, in China, you will be one in a million. Brown skin and those distinct facial features definitely help you stand apart.

Another good thing about China is that it is affordable even on a student’s budget. The cost of living is quite cheap compared to most Western countries. Many prices are negotiable. Prices are lower in rural areas than in the cities, and informal marketplaces are cheaper than international brands. There are scams and artificially marked-up prices. You will learn. And the Chinese people will help you do that for they are unendingly hospitable and sincerely interested in knowing more about you. 

Education in China is not just about degrees, it is about culture and the experiences. The Chinese enjoy a hot beverage, which will leave you scratching your head as even in the hot humid summers, the Chinese drink boiling-hot tea. It is the national pastime, it seems.

Talk to people. Throw in your limited knowledge of the language. Plan trips. Go see the Great Wall; the best time to be there is around sunset. Don’t worry, there is plenty of space up there.

Taqi, when recalling his experiences, reminisces that going to China was the best decision he made. “Not only did I get a degree, I learnt a lot too. I wasn’t the only foreign student in the class. There were others from Europe and Africa as well.

“My teacher didn’t want me to go at the end of my programme. He offered me a job with one of their teaching programmes, one where I could share my knowledge of English with the local students. I taught Finance and banking to the locals, in English. I had a great opportunity to be there for a long time. But my parents were looking forward to me returning and then my wedding too was on hold. So, here I am. However, I do look forward to visiting Shanghai once again. Maybe soon.”

At the moment, there’s a huge plus side to studying in China. When Pakistani students foray into Western educational institutions, they get the opportunity to stay and work there, resulting in a brain drain that has cost Pakistan dearly. In case of China, the cultural and language differences are so huge that the most viable option, instead of struggling to get a job and acceptance in a foreign land, is to come back home and make use of your newly added soft skills, including a new language and get the corporate acceptance here.

Pakistani as well as Chinese companies with their presence here are courting Pakistani graduates, young graduates with additional expertise in Chinese language, to come and work for them. These are indeed good times. Studying in China is the best thing on the plate right now. Not only the degree but getting to learn the Chinese language and the Chinese culture is an added experience. The Chinese take a lot of pride in their culture and give immense respect to anyone who can speak or understand their language.