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Big trouble in little Nottingham

Samantha Jonscher discovers just how divisive bedtimes can be in Chinese universities

The University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) is the first of its kind: a UK campus in mainland China. It offers an identical education to the one found at its parent university in the UK and according to its website, “a comprehensive UK university experience”. Trading on its status as a Western commodity, it has become one of China’s most sought-after university placements. UNNC represents an opportunity to get a high-paying job overseas or in international business in China.

One domestic student, Olivia*, said that she came to UNNC because “I want everything you have [in the West]; I want to live like you. I want an international job in China or somewhere else. Coming here will give me good English and an internationally recognised qualification”. Nationalism is never in short supply in China, but Olivia’s sentiment is a common one; the West is cool and Western friends, languages and clothes are real commodities here.

But, UNNC is not exactly an annex of the UK, as it is sometimes billed to be. It is still very much a university that must meet the expectations of the Chinese education system and most importantly, Chinese parents.

Of the many small cultural nuances that make UNNC a Chinese university first and foremost, the most problematic is its curfew policy. At 11pm every night the doors into the domestic students’ residences are locked and the students on the wrong side are left there until the doors are unlocked at 6am. Attendance is monitored by a swipe card system. During the week, Internet access is also shut off. But, there is another catch: this curfew policy does not apply to the international student dorms, only to domestic undergraduate buildings.

This policy is not unique to UNNC; it is standard practice across other universities in China and is in many ways more liberal than similar policies at other tertiary institutions, where power is shut off, water is turned off, or 6am mandatory wake-up times are enforced.

The government does not mandate curfews but they are encouraged and parents expect them. Another domestic student explained, “It is for my own good. It makes us better students and is intended to make sure that no students disrupt other students by staying up late. I like the curfew.” When asked if it made him still feel like a child, he replied, “I am still a child, I am only 21.”

In a recent survey of the UNNC student community, 45% of students agree that the curfew is necessary. But then again, 55% want the curfew to be removed. While some domestic students take no issue with the curfew and consider it a fact of life, many are dissatisfied. James* told me, “I am a student at a UK university. I am going to graduate with a British degree. My teachers are British. Why am I different to the British kids that come here?”

Importantly too, this same survey found that 80% of students considered the policy to be divisive within the student community. After a particularly rowdy party thrown in the international students’ residence last year a number of domestic students had had enough. The student union stepped in and organised protests against the inequality of the division between domestic and international students. James*, who was involved in the protest explained, “Either we all have the same curfew, or we all have no curfew.”

Posters were pasted around campus calling the behaviour of the international student community “disrespectful”, as well as other posters which contained less amicable messages such as: “Go back to where you came from,” and “This is our university, abide by our rules.” One particular poster called the female international students who took part in the rowdy party “bitches”. An anti-international student page was even set up on Renren (the Chinese equivalent of Facebook).

James told me that he understands their animosity, but felt that the biggest problem with the curfew at a university which prides itself on its international standing was the issue of division. “[International students] live in separate dorms and have a separate life. This is not fair and it makes [them] privileged, it makes [them] speak to us less.”

As an international student at UNNC on exchange, I will say that this is absolutely true. Nothing underlines our divisions more than our evening rituals. At 11pm I sit in the quad drinking beer and playing drinking games with other international students, while the domestic students stop what they are doing and rush off to their dorms to meet the curfew. At 11:15, while we continue drinking, we watch groups of students get on their knees and beg to be let inside. Sometimes they are, but at 5am when we return from our night out, we usually see two or three or four Chinese students sleeping on the grass or pavement, waiting for 6am when the doors will be unlocked again. Meanwhile, we saunter by on our way to bed.

*Names changed for to protect privacy.