Chinese Studies needs a radical rethink

We need to look at the cause of the high suspension rate


With the highest suspension and drop-out rate, there is no question that Chinese Studies is a challenging degree. Listed as the most difficult language in the world to learn, electing to study Chinese is no easy decision. Mandarin is a tonal language with a complex writing system which makes it difficult to learn for English native speakers. The course itself requires a lot of juggling of different tasks, ranging from studying modern Chinese, Classical Chinese, and Chinese history simultaneously in one’s first year. But these are not the only challenges for Chinese Studies undergraduates. There are two key factors that make it an incredibly demanding degree.

As a graduate student currently studying the MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies, I know all too well the struggles of learning a language from scratch. At the age of 22, I decided to learn Chinese, and got thrown in the deep end as a complete beginner of Chinese at Oxford. But in my cohort, there was only one student who had a more advanced level of Mandarin when we started, and so logically she was placed in a higher-level Chinese class.

When undergraduates first start the course, there is often a wide mixture of abilities, with some students having done A-levels in Mandarin or having studied for a year in China already, whilst others start as complete beginners with no experience of learning the language. One would assume that as a result, students with experience of Chinese would be put into a higher-level class, and beginners would be put into a beginner-level class.

But at undergraduate level, this is not how it is done. All undergraduates are lumped into the same class regardless of ability. This causes major stress and anxiety for many first years and is one factor that makes the course difficult for many. It certainly raises the question, why are Masters students separated into different classes depending on one’s ability, whilst undergraduates are not? Before undergraduate beginners even start the course, they are already on the backfoot. This is extremely intimidating for many of those who have never studied Chinese before and puts first years with no Chinese language experience at a significant disadvantage.

Moreover, the course differs from modern European language courses at Oxford as students go on their year abroad in their second as opposed to their third year. The reason for this is that going to China and learning the language in a Chinese setting is fundamental to getting everyone’s language up past beginner level. However, there are significant challenges that come with this part of the course’s design. In a typical Oxford students’ second year, they rent a house in Cowley and learn how to pay their rent and bills.

Chinese Studies second years have to do this in China. Not only have most of them never lived abroad before, but most of them are also living in a non-English speaking environment with only a basic command of Chinese after just one year of study. Evidently, this makes reading a housing contract a particularly daunting task. As a result, the year abroad is a particularly stressful time where students often contemplate dropping out.

The timing of the year abroad also means that students leave the rest of their year group in Oxford after only one year in each others’ company. They return in third year when most people’s friendships are by then well-established and fewer are looking to make new friends. Because of this, it is often difficult to find a way to integrate back into college life and can be the cause of significant emotional stress.

The lack of differentiation between Chinese language levels and the timing of the year abroad are two factors that I think make it a particularly challenging degree. It is a course that most benefits those students who are able to easily adapt to fast-paced and intense conditions which in many ways epitomize the Oxford experience. As a result, many students are left feeling alienated and unsupported.