Writer: Doraemon

According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE), Hong Kong has become the base of the most international universities, including the City University of Hong Kong (1st), the University of Hong Kong (2nd) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (5th). In 2021, CUHK’s ranking even went up to 3rd. Our university seems very proud of the result and posted it on the “CUHK Rankings” website to tell all visitors: “We are one of the most international universities in the world.” However, does the honour of “the most international university” mean that CUHK is becoming an international university? THE introduced CUHK as an international university like this, Students from over 50 countries study at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The university has exchange partnerships with more than 282 institutions in 36 countries and regions. Some 6,000 students study abroad or participate in an apprenticeship abroad program or internship.” The dazzling numbers have painted a picture of a campus similar to that of the “United Nations” in the reader’s mind. However, is this the case? Could living in CUHK be portrayed as “life in the United Nations”?

The answer is uncertain. Different cultures coexist in the era of globalization. students could form their social circle. People tend to speak with those with similar cultural backgrounds: local students speak Cantonese; Mainland students speak Mandarin (some of them speak their dialects); Russians speak Russian; Arabs speak Arabic; other internationals speak English. The various communities in CUHK give rise to a very interesting situation, that is we can all speak English but we rarely speak to each other. It’s like a hotel for tourists to stay, but not a campus, which is a place full of the legacy of student activities. Students come to CUHK as a tourist for four years and sometimes some may complain: “This is not what I expected…” The question here is: what is an “international” university? Maybe it is time to ask ourselves, “Is it possible for a university to be ‘international? Is there an international culture?”

Deconstructing “International” University

The word “international” was first coined by Bentham, “The word international, it must be admitted, is new; however, it is hoped, sufficiently analogous and intelligible. It is calculated to express, in a more meaningful way, the branch of law which is commonly referred to as the law of nations.” Thus, the word “international,” at the very beginning, appeared with the intention of collaboration among nations. Therefore, the word “international” is a liberal term because it conveys an image of collaboration between people. However, when it comes to campus life, local students, international students, and mainland students have their own orientation camps and their own, separate, social circles with people from similar backgrounds. Shifting the spotlight to the student organization, it is still rare to see international students being part of student bodies. I still remember that during the promotion period of the student union by-election, a local student came to us and told us that she was quite surprised that there was an international student in the candidate cabinet. There was also an international student who came to see us and said, “I’m a 4th-year student, and this is my first vote,” he added, “it’s good to see the presence of international students in the main student bodies.” Many of them think it is quite surprising to include international students in major student associations, and such a situation has occurred in one of the “most international universities.” Apparently, there is not really an “international campus culture” at CUHK. Therefore, not trying to throw a wet blanket over the waves of enthusiasm over internationalization, but calling CUHK “an international university,” seems a bit of an exaggeration.

The article Regardless of Our Backgrounds, We Are All Elites Under Globalization written by Lam Siu-bun (and translated in this publication by Leung Chun Hei and Nauyuoh) illustrates the fading nature of university education. Globalization and neoliberalism collaborate to turn education into a commodity for sale in the market. People with different backgrounds can thus study on the same campus. We are learning culture on the campus, yet culture also needs contribution from its community members to be sustainable. It is not necessary to interact, or to cooperate with each other in order to get an education aimed at providing service. Lam mentioned the intention of the globalization of CUHK like this: “[it is] one of the most effective ways, of course, is to improve their own reputation and image and improve the school’s international ranking.” The question is, do we really want to study in an institution by constantly consuming the culture and the reputation of the university? How could we contribute to the campus culture, deepening the spirit and culture of the university (which is a unique and integrated campus life for CUHKers only) and making it sustainable?

The internationalization in progress: What did the university do?

The activities of DIO

When we queue up at the bus stop in front of the MTR station, it is difficult to ignore the colourful flying flags written with Diversity and Inclusion Office, a newly initiated office of CUHK with the intention of “striving to embrace diversity as an essential element of excellence in all aspects of the university community and cultivate inclusiveness throughout the campus in which students and staff are able to realize their full potential”(excerpt from the DIO office website). The university is putting effort into the integration between people from different backgrounds. They  organised a series of events for better integration, the above calendar shows the activities organised by the university and the colleges in April. The activities provide opportunities for interaction, yet, barely do the local students notice it. Local students are not paying attention to the activities. The activities which are eye-catching to locals are usually organised by main student bodies. Perhaps student associations are truly where culture is being produced—the campus culture, like dem beats, the random talks in society rooms, all of these happen among the student bodies.  The question for an “international university” is, therefore, not how many activities are provided, but how many activities are created inclusively (which is being friendly to every cultural group regardless of language barriers and cultural differences) where the student organisations play a pivotal role.

The student associations: exclusive or inclusive?

Student associations are the key component of campus life. Students organise and participate in the activities. According to the previous description, the main student associations are exclusive of international students. One of the examples is college O-camps. The four old colleges are dominated by Cantonese, hindering the international students from integrating with the locals. However, if we look at the diverse backgrounds of the student organisations, we could still find some organisations with students from different countries, like AISEC and ISA. Why are they only a small proportion of the student organisations? The answer is probably language. The majority of student associations is Cantonese speaking.  Meanwhile, for mainland students, there is Mainland Undergraduate Association (MUA), for international students, there is International Student Association (ISA). The cultural separation of students is a reason that CUHK communities are separated, leading to the absence of unified campus culture, or a sense of belonging to CUHK, hindering the development of the university community as our home rather than a hotel. The first step of creating a truly “international university” is to start conversation and collaboration between different student associations. For example, is it possible for MUA, ISA and CUSU to collaborate? Is it possible for locals to speak more English and internationals speak more Cantonese?

Future: The international CUHK

Organizing “cultural exchange activities” and changing the medium of teaching to English could only build a facade of an international university. (Sometimes it does not even work at all.) To be an  “international university,” is about the campus culture. Culture shapes people, and most importantly, we shape culture as well. Only this way could a truly integrated culture, which is the way of life of the social groups, be sustainable. It is high time for us to know,  to work and to make history with each other. 


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