Researchers in the UK and the Republic of Ireland have found that overseas students from China are experiencing racism and discrimination following the outbreak of the coronavirus. This has prompted warnings over potential lasting damage to internationalisation in the nations’ universities.
Academics from the Open University, Trinity College Dublin and the University of Surrey were working on a research project investigating how international students build networks with local students and communities when the pandemic began. The project, which has followed international students for the past eight years, recently followed the social interactions of 167 students at Surrey and 100 students at Trinity College Dublin over a three month period from October to December 2019.
As the coronavirus spread, reports of xenophobic attacks on Asian students increased, so the team decided to interview international, postgraduate students at the two universities, of whom they were already speaking too as part of the project. They aimed to gain insight into their experiences since the outbreak of the pandemic. Immediately, they heard reports of discrimination and high levels of anxiety among the Chinese students. YingFei Héliot, one of the researchers and a lecturer in organisational behaviour at Surrey Business School, told Times Higher Education:
My students raised their concerns with me [when the outbreak started]and so we decided to delve into it in our project.
She said it was very clear that the global pandemic had changed the experiences of Chinese students in Ireland and the UK, with many being “shouted and sworn at, and even chased”.
“Our findings show that international students from China are experiencing very high levels of anxiety, discrimination and insecurity living through the coronavirus period,” she added.
The researchers have spoken to 22 international students so far and have found that all of the Chinese students they spoke to had faced xenophobic remarks. One Asian student told the researchers that they were arguing with a flatmate on a different issue, but were then suddenly told, ‘you brought the virus‘. Others have faced hostility outside campus, including local people shouting ‘Coronavirus, Chinese‘ and swearing at one Chinese student who wore a face-mask, despite this practice becoming very normalised for personal protection against the virus.
Dr Héliot has said that this has led to many students only socialising with groups from similar cultural backgrounds. The team’s ongoing research shows that many international students have decided to return to their home country, largely at the request of their parents, but also due to fear of discrimination directed at them.
‘I have to go to China, it could be dangerous for me to stay here,’ one said.
Dr Héliot said discrimination could have a ‘long-lasting damaging effect‘ on international students at UK universities and the sector must act now to combat any anti-Chinese rhetoric. She concluded that, ‘These stories will spread…we have to do something now, we need to create a psychologically safe environment for every student‘.