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COVID-related economic distress imperils university dreams of France's Chinese immigrant families

Céline Hua says the COVID-19 pandemic has been "a huge challenge" to her Ph.D. plans. (Photo by Margot Lambilliotte)


Global Business Journalism reporter

Part 2 of a 3-story special report

PARIS – A university education has always been a logical, even socially mandated choice for many French students. This is particularly true of students of Chinese descent, whose parents made many sacrifices and immigrated to France to offer a better education to their children.

But now, as many families are struggling with job losses and pay cuts due to the COVID-19 crisis, in addition to the massive debt loads that many students carry for years, some Chinese Europeans are starting to reconsider pursuing their educational path.

‘‘Education has always been an important part in the way Chinese people raise their children. I remember my parents telling me stories about prestigious universities when I was a child. When I finally graduated from high school and started attending university, my whole family was extremely proud,’’ said Céline Hua, a French of Chinese descent.

Hua is the first in her family holding a university degree. She is a Ph.D. candidate at Paris Diderot University with a research focus on social and moral development of children and young people. But Hua and many of her classmates are facing delays and uncertainties in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that has caused wages to shrink and unemployment to soar.

‘‘I personally see it as a huge challenge," said Hua. "I am lucky enough to be finishing my education and that my parents have been able to keep on helping me during the pandemic. I still live with them, I would have never been able to rent my own place all alone in Paris, and I think it would have been harder during this crisis."

The economic pain is more acute for the approximately 240,000 young French people who are the first children of their family to attend a university. Many of them are from immigrant families like Hua’s.

"Giving a better education to their future children was the main reason why my parents immigrated to France.," she said. "For me, finishing my studies will be a way of paying it back to them. This is my biggest motivation."

According to the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, 32% of university students of the class of 2019 took out a student loan. The average debt load for each student upon graduation was 8,300 euros. For immigrant families with lower-than-average incomes, it is a sizable burden, exacerbated by the job losses caused by the pandemic. As a result, more students are considering a pause in their university plans to pursue jobs, since they could be the only breadwinner for their entire family.

Chloé Shang's plans to study at Fudan University were scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured here: Guanghua Lou on the Fudan campus in Shanghai.

For Chloé Shang, another French of Chinese descent and also first in her family go to university, the closure of her parents’ restaurant during the various lockdowns makes her dream of law school seem almost irresponsible. Before the pandemic had started, she was on the cusp of reaching her goal by going abroad for a one-year exchange program.

‘‘Last year I got a scholarship to go to Fudan University for one year in Shanghai,’’ said Shang. "I was supposed to start classes there in September 2020, but everything got cancelled because of the virus. I cried so much when I received this email. Spending this one year in Shanghai was also for me a way to explore my Chinese roots, and learn more about my parents’ country."

She decided to take a gap year and is occasionally working as an online Chinese language tutor.

‘‘This decision was really hard, but it was the most reasonable," she said. "I think it would be too selfish from me to go abroad, because it would put even more financial pressure on my family. They are already in big distress. I will try again to go to study in a foreign university when it will be possible.’’

This new financial pressure is especially heavy for the next generation hoping to start university next September. That is the case for Shang’s 18-year-old younger brother. He will be graduating from high school in June and is currently applying to start bachelor’s degree studies at a university.

‘‘My brother Félix is also really concerned about it,’’ said Shang. ‘‘Since the virus hit France, he has been following most of his high school classes online. It has been a real struggle for him because everyone is staying at home now and it is really hard to find your own space to focus and study in a proper way. He failed some exams, and now he is wondering if it really worth it to start university in September 2021, especially if everything is still conducted online.’’

That sense of anxiety is borne out by polling data. A survey by Odaxa Sondage reveals that 72% of French students are afraid that their diploma will be less valuable because of the crisis. Many of them are starting to think that they could just go directly in the workforce and find a blue-collar job. But when it comes to higher-wage jobs, most employers still prefer applicants with university degrees.

Universities also face financial risks, including a loss of tuition and housing revenue. That, in turn, could prompt universities to focus on higher-income students who do not need the financial aid to pursue higher education. This new reality could slow the social rise of immigrants' children.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, an increasing number of first-generation students from poor families were enrolling in French universities. Today, the educational progress of recent decades appears to be in jeopardy.

At the same time, prejudice against Asians and people of Asian descent is on the rise in Europe. According to a survey conducted by the author, 94% of Asian people and French people of Asian descent say that they have been discriminated or judged on based on their race or ethnicity at least once in their life. Nearly all of those surveyed – 91% – believe that racism exists in French society, and more than half think that prejudice is not addressed adequately in the country.

The entire generation has been feeling totally forgotten about. In France, schools from kindergarten to high school have had the authorization to reopen while universities have remained closed for a year, obliging university students to follow all their classes online from home. This has led many of them wondering where do they fit in the society and how does the future of the country will look like if this entire generation is being left behind. They have been calling themselves ‘"la generation oubliée" (the forgotten generation).

‘‘I hope I will be able to get the French scholarship for international mobility once again,’’ said Shang. ‘‘Otherwise, I don’t think I will be able to afford doing this exchange program in China, even if I work this whole year to put money aside. I think the government will have troubles providing good scholarships in the future since we will get hit by another crisis, an economical one this time, after the virus. Even now, we do not see that much help from their end."

On January 20 and 26, 2021, protesters took to the streets to denounce the lack of consideration from the government toward students. After the week of rioting, the government then decided to reopen university courses once per week, limited to 20 students per class. Still, many students feel adrift.

‘‘I think the most difficult while being in this situation is that you do not have any support," said Shang. "Last September the university fees increased by 75 euros on average per academic year for university students. The government provided financial help to families who have younger children attending high school, middle school and preschool, while university students had to pay more."

Access to education has been one of the top priorities for the French government for decades. For generations, important reforms have been implemented in the country to offer education to all its people, no matter their social class or their immigrant background.

Many immigrant families believe it is crucial to protect these values in this time of crisis. Hua, the Ph.D. student from Paris, still hopes to achieve her family's dream of a better education for a brighter future.

‘‘I hope that young students of Chinese descent can look up to us as a role model," she said. "I want to achieve it for myself, for my family and for my community. Many aspects remain uncertain for the upcoming academic years. One thing is sure, the classes of 2020 and 2021 will be remembered, hopefully because lives will be saved."

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