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.


  1. Why are you writing about this course when you didn’t even do it? The dropout rate being high may only be due to class numbers being small so as a proportion it’s higher. Japanese Undergraduate students are split into advanced and beginner classes and as a result, teachers have been complaining about this and want to revert to having everyone start from scratch as they believe it helps everyone of all abilities. Going to China in second year is an immersive experience and is good for our Chinese. There are problems going abroad in third year when all your friends graduate by the time you get back, so there are negatives with that too.

    If there is anyone who should criticise or praise this course, it should be one of the students actually doing this course. This article just gives us a bad rep when there are problems with the whole Oriental Studies department and across the university. There really is no need for this……………

  2. As the actual 2nd year undergraduates studying this course, this is so overwhelmingly not our experience. As with every course there are downsides and challenges, but they are none of the things listed here – in fact these are the things that have made our time at Oxford and in Beijing so special. You’d be hard pressed to find a subject group who enjoys not only their course but each other’s company more – “alienation” is in no way reflective of our experience. Obviously we can’t talk for everyone and every year but we know how important articles like these were in making our decisions to apply and we would never want an article like this to limit access to what we believe is a really valuable course.

    • Would also like to add as a Second Year that we all have friends back in Oxford who we are really close to. Of course we miss them on the year abroad and I personally don’t believe that we will be isolated in college when we return.

      As an ab intio learner, of course it was difficult at first, but the lack of streaming meant I was able to make fast progress. This course is by no means unsuitable for an ab initio learner.

      Moreover, there is the option to live in dormitories for the year abroad, just a lot of us chose not to!

      Of course finding a place to live was stressful, but it only took a few days, and I was so happy and proud once it was all sorted. I managed to find a place to live, purely speaking Chinese, after only having studied the language for a year! To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think anyone considered dropping out due to finding a place to live.

      Please take this article with a pinch of salt!

    • To expand this into less flippant answer: the Chinese Studies BA is a very intense course and many aspects of it, particularly how the course demands intersect with students’ life demands – mental health, finances, general personal development – really merit open and thorough discussion. This article fails to deliver this discussion in any kind of depth. It consists in unsubstantiated generalisations that are grounded neither in the author’s experience of the course nor – as far as I can tell, given the absence of any quotations from interview or other data – the real experiences of other students on the course, nor faculty and staff involved in the design and delivery of the course, nor, finally, anyone else involved in the course in a pastoral capacity.

      In view of this, the article amounts to, at best, lazy journalism and, at worst, scaremongering. Besides giving Ms Davies something to put on her CV, this article can only serve to put off applicants, and disproportionately so in the case of potential applicants from less privileged backgrounds who already are starting on the back foot in terms of what information they get about Oxford from the media.

      To reiterate, I fully agree that the department should constantly and completely evaluate and re-evaluate the course, and to do so openly, in consultation with the students. I’m fortunate to be able to speak as someone with personal experience of some of the problems that the course pressures present for students’ welfare and well-being, from both a student’s perspective (having myself been part of one BA cohort, coming from a state school background) and from a course instructor’s perspective (having later supported BA students as a grad instructor.) I’m under no illusion that the intensities of a course as demanding as the Oxford BA Chinese Studies do not, at times, intersect with mental and other health problems with really (really) adverse results. In spite of this, I still absolutely, wholeheartedly, completely encourage anyone reading this who’s thinking of applying for the course to go for it. Please, please, please do not be put off by this article! Please read all the comments here, and speak to those who are or have been involved with the course and learn about their experiences.

      My (isolated) experience is that this course can be life-changing. It has equipped me to achieve things I never would have thought myself capable of and formed the basis of (hopefully) lifelong friendships in a way that subjects with bigger, more diffuse cohorts often do not. I know that my experience is just that, and in no way representative of everyone’s.

  3. > “investigative journalism”
    > Does no actual investigation
    > Doesn’t even do the course
    > Be cherwell journalist

  4. I studied the (undergraduate!) Chinese course at Oxford and wouldn’t give up the things I learnt or the people I met for the world. Yes, the faculty could be more organised. Yes, the language is confusing. Yes, there are challenges. But putting people off what is a really stimulating and unique degree in many good ways is not helpful, and neither is giving a skewed view of statistics – the course is small, of course the dropout rate seems high. So does the acceptance rate. I don’t think this article really gives a fair view and hope the author thinks to consult with more people who actually went through the experience next time.

  5. I’m someone who has suspended from Chinese for exactly the reasons mentioned in this article – my lived experience is proof that these are valid points worth mentioning. I find it so depressing when other undergrads consistently try to shut down the discussion on this issue. Why are you so afraid of letting potential applicants know what its really like for a significant minority of students? It seems to me there is so much unchecked privilege going on in this discussion. If you haven’t had difficulties with being sent to a campus for a year with no mental health provision – then you’re lucky you don’t have a mental illness. If you haven’t had any issues with unexpectedly high renting prices in China – then you’re lucky you or your parents have an additional several thousand pounds lying around to make up the difference. I could go on all day about the way demographic changes in students (eg rising rates of mental illness, more lower income students) are directly causing these issues of serious discontent with the course. The faculty are NOT meeting the needs of their students, and as a course representative who sat in on the meetings, I can tell you they aren’t planning to start adapting any time soon. People like me who’ve dropped out or suspended are literally shut out of the institution of Oxford – the culture of shame works so hard to keep us silent, please don’t add to it.

  6. I don’t think that anyone’s criticism of this article is an attempt to ‘shut down discussion’. We’re objecting to a poorly thought out piece of journalism and many of us undergraduate students are confused that we weren’t pitched for comments. It’s unbalanced and unrepresentative. It’s written by someone with no first-hand experience of the undergraduate course. It’s factually misleading. What particularly frustrated me was the fact that it had the potential to be SO constructive. There are many shortfalls of Chinese Studies which warrant a dialogue and yours are all examples.

    So why is there no mention of them here?

    I started the course as an absolute beginner and being put in the same classes as everyone else was more of a godsend. If this article is going to mention the loneliness and isolation that some students can feel then it should also mention that this may be exacerbated if we were all immediately cordoned off to various classes and I was stuck in isolation learning my ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’. Although just my individual experience, I received both academic and personal support from the department at different times in the year and never felt disadvantaged. In fact, given that the course teaching was my only point of reference for Chinese, I arguably benefited in the end of year papers designed by our professors.

    Re. flat rent; most of us could stretch to the higher bills and we’re lucky in that. In some flats we compromised on doing tiered room prices to make it slightly easier for those of us who were worried about the financial side of things – I realise we’re close enough course mates to be able to have this kind of conversation.

    There were many stresses in flat hunting, but we chose that route. The article insinuates that finding a flat is presented to us as the only option when it’s made very clear that Peking University’s campus is conveniently available at reasonable prices. What I do agree on is that we weren’t really warned about just how high flat costs could be or given enough advice on taking cash RMB out. There are other issues with the year abroad that we weren’t, in my opinion, properly prepped for. Yet none of these particularly relate to it taking place in the second year (which is actually a course structure that I’ve heard many modern language courses are wishing they could emulate). And again, were any of these points mentioned at all in the article, they would be really valid.

    The gross Oxford system of shutting out students who dropout or rusticate desperately needs to be revised and like most UK unis Oxford has a long way to go in its focus on student welfare, but this isn’t a problem specific to the Chinese Studies department.

    I realise that this article has good intentions and rightfully wants to provoke a discourse, but the way in which it’s been researched and written strikes me as more counter-intuitive than anything and might undermine future attempts to fairly criticise the course.

  7. how is this article helping people with mental illness who are considering applying for this course? This person knows nothing about the undergraduate course


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