Exeter welcomes the Chinese new year
AS dancers dressed as dragons and lions paraded through the city, the year of the snake was ushered in with a colourful and exultant celebration.
Hundreds of people were involved and thousands looked on as the Chinese New Year event, which started at Buffet City and continued on the University of Exeter campus, gave the city a taste of the Far East with food, martial arts and a host of other activities to enjoy.
In many cultures, snakes mean fear, but in the Chinese horoscope the snake is endowed with luck, love, longevity and wealth. The people who are born in the year of the snake are wise, calm and careful.
Ryan Siyi Dong is a second year PhD student in mathematics and head of the University of Exeter's Chinese Society which organised the activities. He said: "The new year is about reunion and the love from family becomes the most important reason to gather as a group. This celebration binds our hearts together with our family members. It reminds us the past year is fallen and the new year has risen. We will wish for a better life for the coming year.
He added: "Before I left my hometown to study abroad, the best part of the Chinese New Year celebration was the family party. Everyone would have a dinner at home, we'd drink and exchange the gifts or red paper envelopes (which contain money as a gift), then fireworks. Unfortunately for many Chinese students we can't go home, so the Chinese Society is a kind of big family of Chinese students. Our society members would like to create an atmosphere like home to let the students know they are not alone. We devote ourselves to passing the love to one another."
And this is an important point, given the massive changes which have occurred on the Exeter campus over the past 20 years.
In 1995, the number of international students – that is students from outside the EU – at the university numbered 500. In 2005, it was around 1,000. In 2012, it was more than 4,000, with the majority coming from Asia, particularly China where significant work has been undertaken in recent years, developing partnerships with a number of institutions and organisations. Similar work is now being done in India.
To many, this has just been a move solely designed to make money, but the university argues it is much more than that, and that it takes its role in ensuring that its growing international community of students can call Exeter home and that the city, in return, welcomes them, incredibly seriously.
Dr Shaun Curtis is the director of International Exeter, the department at the university dedicated to delivering the institution's aims of reaching out around the world to attract the best students and capitalise on the potential rewards it can deliver.
He said: "We are always working hard to attract the most capable candidates and bring them to the UK.
"It's worth noting though that last year, for the first time, we saw a slight reduction in the number of students from China but this was deliberate. We want the university to have a truly international population so we have been looking at the non-Asian international market to ensure we have a more balanced population."
Developing the international student population is an area which has received significant investment. In 1995, it was a very small operation but now has 31 members of staff with agents working on the university's behalf around the globe. Dr Curtis added: "And it's not a case of taking people from around the world and bringing them to Exeter with no support. They participate in a preparation bridging programmes through INTO Exeter to top up their academic and/or linguistic skills before enrolling on one of our degrees. We have found that international students like Exeter and Devon – they find it peaceful, clean and safe.
"If they need help then we offer support with acclimatisation. The international student support office has been set up to provide any assistance needed and we have home students willing to be part of a 'buddy' system and host families. We lay on trips to help the students experience life in the South West like an excursion to Padstow's 'Obby 'Oss festival.
"For those students who don't go home over Christmas, we have offered Christmas dinners over the past few years and invited the international students to join in the celebrations. There's also opportunities in sport, and it works both ways.
"The Chinese New Year is a major event on campus, attracting thousands of people, there's also a celebration of Diwali and the Kurdish New Year. And we have a number of overseas programmes to broaden UK students' cultural experience. The Students' Guild and its societies also have a role to play."
The university does acknowledge that attracting an increasing number of international students does have enormous financial benefits, but Dr Curtis insists the reciprocal nature of this prosperity is noted.
"International students are very knowledgeable about university rankings and as our status has greatly improved, so has the number of students making us their first choice," he said. "And if we are to break into the world's top 100 universities, we need to ensure the best students from the UK and around the world are in our classrooms.
"It is important that it is recognised that the move towards attracting international students is not just about fees. Firstly, we hope that the international students will go on to become influential people in their home countries and, perhaps globally. To have a set of potentially powerful people who are well-disposed to us is important for our long-term future.
"Secondly, there is an immediate and well-documented positive impact on the local economy. That's not just from the students themselves but from their families and the contributions they go on to make in industry and other areas.
"The overall contribution to the South West of England's GDP from Exeter's international students is an estimated £104.4m, supporting 3,280 jobs.
"I also don't want people to think that the expansion of international students is going to be exponential. I think we will cap growth around 4,000. We want to be diverse but we also want to support UK students. It's all about finding the right balance and I think we have a good mix at the moment."