Is China Both a Source and Hub for International Students?

Is China Both a Source and Hub for International Students?
Is China Both a Source and Hub for International Students?
Is China Both a Source and Hub for International Students? Top

    Decades of economic development have enabled China’s leaders to modernize the country’s education and transformed China into a hub for international students. Whereas foreign students historically only traveled to China for language courses, students from around the world are increasingly drawn to China to enroll in technical courses and attain professional degrees. China’s economic boom has also created new opportunities for middle-class families to send their children to study abroad. Cultivating talent both at home and abroad will be critical for Chinese leaders as they push for an innovation-based economy driven by a well-educated workforce.

    Flow of International Students in China

    Surging International Students in China

    More international students are flocking to China than ever before. According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), over 440,000 foreigners studied in China in 2016 – marking a 35 percent increase from 2012. China attracts more international students than any other Asian power and ranks third globally, behind the United States and the United Kingdom.

    According to China’s Ministry of Education (MOE), the total share of international students seeking higher-education degrees in China grew by 13 percent over the past 10 years, jumping from almost 55,000 students in 2006 to nearly 210,000 students in 2016. As a share of all foreign students in China in 2016, 33 percent pursued undergraduate degrees, while 14 percent pursued either Master or Doctorate degrees. Approximately 30 percent of students were enrolled in primary or secondary schools.

    Over 50 percent of China’s inbound international students come from neighboring countries, such as South Korea, Thailand, and Russia. Students from South Korea alone account for almost 16 percent of all foreign students studying in China in 2016. By comparison, the United States draws nearly 80 percent of its foreign students from Asia and the Middle East.

    Upwards of 40 percent of foreign students travel to China to study the Chinese language. While this figure is noteworthy, it marks a 15 percent drop compared with 2012. In general terms, the amount of foreign students pursuing non-language degrees is on the rise. Since 2012, the number of foreign students majoring in education, science, engineering, and agriculture doubled. Xu Tao, Director of the MOE’s Department of International Cooperation and Exchange, has stated that the most popular non-language degrees pursued by international students in China were medicine, engineering, economics and management. Most foreigners that study in China attend institutions in Beijing and Shanghai, with the two cities hosting about a third of all international students.

    In recent years, the Chinese government has made a renewed push to appeal to overseas students by offering a greater range of scholarships. The number of Chinese government-funded international students witnessed an almost six-fold increase over the past ten years. In 2016, 40 percent of all new international students received sponsorship from the Chinese government.

    Although China already hosts a sizable population of students from the 10 countries that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – around 68,000 in 2016 – Beijing is particularly focused on promoting closer education ties with these neighbors.  According to ASEAN-China Center’s Secretary-General Yang Xiping, “foreign students from Southeast Asian countries are the bridge and future of the relationship between ASEAN [countries] and China.” For instance, China’s Jiangsu province recently launched a $45,000 USD scholarship fund to help draw ASEAN students to its academic institutions. China’s MOE has announced that it plans to set up 10 science and research centers by 2022 in countries of interest, such as Malaysia.

    MOE has also pledged to establish a bilateral exchange program that, over the next several years, will annually send 2,500 Chinese students abroad and sponsor 10,000 foreign students to study in China. This pipeline of bilateral exchange may pave the way for foreign students from Belt and Road countries, who have already benefited from preferential government policies. Beijing currently offers 10,000 places each year for students whose home countries are identified as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. The program has contributed to a considerable enrollment spike, with China attracting more than 200,000 students from 64 of the 68 Belt and Road countries in 2016. Of particular note is the increasing number of students coming from Pakistan, which has surged from about 9,500 students in 2012 to almost 19,000 students in 2016. Pakistan now stands as the  fifth-largest source of international students flowing into China.

    Since 2006, China has sought to draw more students from Africa and develop closer ties by providing economic incentives. At the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, President Xi Jinping announced that China would implement “ten major plans” to boost cooperation with Africa, which includes supporting 30,000 African students with government scholarships. This effort by the Chinese government has seen major results. The number of African students in China grew from just 1,793 in 2003 to 61,594 in 2016.1 The greatest number of these students came from Ghana (5,552 students), Nigeria (4,746), and Tanzania (3,520).

    China is now the second-most popular international destination for African students behind France, which has an African student body of over 95,000. By comparison, the U.S. and U.K. each host about 40,000 African students every year. Surveys conducted by Stellenbosch University’s Center for Chinese Studies show that economics and science degrees are the most popular among African students. Importantly, China’s drive to attract African students has left some observers to question whether these scholarships are offered as part of a larger soft-power strategy designed to promote China’s international image through educational cooperation.

    Despite China’s growing appeal as a destination for overseas study, foreigners face certain restrictions within Chinese academia. A joint document issued by China’s Ministry of Education, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June 2017 outlines the rules and regulations for Chinese universities regarding overseas students. These restrictions include prohibiting religious gatherings and political activism. In addition, the statement sets requirements for universities and colleges to teach Chinese laws, regulations, cultures and customs to international students. It also includes compulsory courses in Chinese as well.

    Chinese International Students Abroad

    Due in part to its massive population of almost 1.4 billion people, China sends more students abroad than any other country. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), over 801,000 Chinese students pursued tertiary education abroad in 2016. The most popular subjects chosen by outbound Chinese students during the 2014-2015 academic year were business management (26.5 percent), engineering (19.7 percent), and math and computer science (12.4 percent).

    Recently, the year-on-year growth rate of Chinese traveling abroad for education has slowed considerably from over 12 percent in 2009 to 0.1 percent in 2015. Notwithstanding this decline, the number of Chinese students abroad vastly surpasses that of other countries. India sends the second-highest number of post-secondary students abroad, but at a mere 255,000 students, which, combined with German (116,000) and French (81,000) students, is only a little more than half the total number of Chinese students abroad.

    Most Chinese international students choose to study in English-speaking countries, with the U.S., Australia, and U.K. together attracting roughly 60 percent of China’s outbound students. A significant portion Chinese who study abroad prefer to stay within East Asia. In 2016, Japan and South Korea represented the 4th and 6th largest host countries, respectively. Hong Kong is also a popular choice among Mainland Chinese students due to its proximity and the prestige of its academic institutes. During the 2016-2017 academic year, universities in Hong Kong hosted over 12,000 Mainland Chinese students, which collectively constituted 12 percent of the Special Administrative Region’s total tertiary enrollment.

    Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, not only has China received an influx of students from the countries associated with the initiative, but Chinese students have likewise flocked to Belt and Road countries. By the end of April 2017, 45 educational agreements had been signed between China and some of these countries. However, the outcome of these efforts is less than satisfactory in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, where the number of Chinese students in these countries has been decreasing since 2011.

    The contribution made by Chinese students to overseas economies is considerable. Per the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), international students over the 2015-2016 academic year contributed a combined $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy – roughly 0.18 percent of the country’s GDP. Chinese constituted 31.9 percent of the 1.04 million international students who were stateside that year. A similar trend is present in the U.K., where international students generated £25.8 billion ($35.01 million USD) for the country in 2014-15. During that calendar year, 21.95 percent of international students in the U.K. were Chinese.

    Many universities actively recruit Chinese students. Based on F-1 student visa data provided by the Department of Homeland Security, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Southern California and Purdue University welcomed more Chinese students in 2014-2015 than any other American universities. Chinese students have become a big market not only for American universities, but also for Japanese universities as a band-aid for their enrollment gap issue resulting from the country’s shrinking population.

    The financial benefit of overseas Chinese students has afforded Beijing a certain degree of leverage over Taiwan. According to Taiwan’s University Entrance Committee for Mainland Chinese Students, Beijing halved the amount of students approved to study in Taiwan to just 1,000 students for the 2017-2018 academic year. This cut has been viewed by some as a response to growing cross-Strait tensions. This policy has hit certain private institutions particularly hard, such as Tamkang University, which is expected to lose $1.2 million over the next four years.

    International Students Going Abroad and Staying Abroad

    China’s ongoing economic development hinges on cultivating its domestic talent in science and technology, with President Xi Jinping going so far as to describe these sectors as “the main battlefields of the economy.” Such innovation necessitates that China retains its best and brightest, but this has historically proven difficult for Beijing. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education reported that 92 percent of Chinese who received science and technology doctorates in the U.S. in 2002 were still on American soil in 2007. According to a 2013 National Science Foundation report, 85.6 percent of Chinese science and engineering doctorate students planned to stay in the United States upon completion of their degrees, more so than recipients from other Asian countries like South Korea (67.9) or Japan (57.6 percent).

    China has taken several steps to reverse the country’s brain drain. Launched in 2008, the Thousand Talents program offers subsidies and perks for returnees, such as providing guaranteed school placements for their children. The program also rewards universities for identifying and recruiting top talent back from overseas. Tech hubs in Shenzhen and Hangzhou have introduced their own local schemes to incentivize Chinese talent to return home, but these programs have had mixed success. As reported by Dr. David Zweig, director of the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, despite the Thousand Talents program selectively targeting top-tier scientists, only a few have returned since its inception.

    Reasons vary as to why Chinese graduates often prefer to stay abroad rather than return to China. In 2014, some overseas survey respondents expressed concern that the academic and work environment in China valued social connections over merit and transparency, as well as worries over the hyper-competitive Chinese academic system. Others cite Xi’s crackdown on corruption and environmental conditions in China as factors influencing their decision to remain abroad.

    According to the Chinese government, the number of overall returning overseas Chinese students is steadily rising. In April 2017, the Chinese government reported that 82.3 percent of students who studied abroad returned to China that year, compared to 72.38 percent in 2012. Some cite increasing visa difficulties and shrinking job markets in countries like the U.S. and New Zealand as the reason for the growing return rate. ChinaPower