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China’s rise as an education superpower and the country’s best universities

May 11, 2021 |   Jasper Gill

China is often noted as a prime source for international students, and for good reason: In the decade 2008-2018, Chinese students abroad rose from 229K to 662K, an increase of nearly 300%.

However, less discussed is that over a not dissimilar period, China rose to be the number three study abroad destination in the world by 2019

Discussion of this remarkable rise came up in a recent interview Sinorbis conducted with George Hernandez from Sofiri. In a wide-ranging interview about the outlook for international education in Australia, George predicted the rapid improvement in China’s education offerings could lead to more Chinese students staying at home and further increases in students going to China for study abroad

This raises questions around how and why China has rapidly expanded its global study abroad presence and which are currently the best Chinese universities?.

The carefully planned rise of China as an international student destination

In 1995, with only 37,000 international students, China was unsighted in international student number rankings tables.

As part of broader plans to become a global economic powerhouse, China’s leadership pledged to raise the standard of offerings at Chinese universities in a concerted push to become a leader in higher education.

To this, it announced the “Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development” in 2010, which offered a comprehensive outline around the provision of first-class education within China...and a goal of attracting 500,000 international students by 2020.

Within just four years, China had surpassed leading international student destination countries such as France, Germany and Australia to become the third-most-popular study destination in the world after the US and the UK.

And by 2019, total numbers had grown to over 490,000 students from over 190 countries studying at over 1000 different institutions across China, meaning its 2010 goal was essentially successful. As a further indication of the success of a key plank of the 2010 plan - to improve the standard of institutions across the country -  thirteen cities housed more than 10,000 international students in 2019, illustrating a shift from more traditional cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which had long been the preference of international students.

But more was to come in the great visionary leap the Chinese government desired to turn China into an educational superpower.

The 2035 Plan

At the Fifth Plenum of the 19th Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, China launched its bold 2035 Plan of “basic socialist modernisation.”

Education figured prominently in the 2035 plan, with broad goals including:

  • Establishing a modern education system.
  • Achieving universal attendance in quality pre-school education.
  • Significantly improving vocational education.
  • Building a more competitive higher education system.
  • Establishing a new education management system with participation from the whole society (i.e. not solely relying on government support).

Plans to achieve these goals centred on:

  • Improving teacher quality.
  • Enhancing education infrastructure by investing in and developing existing universities, and building new ones.
  • Ensuring universal access to education.
  • Building partnerships with international governments and universities.

It was the hope of the Chinese government that such a bold education plan would act as an incentive for some Chinese students to remain in China for their studies while also further enhancing China’s reputation as a destination for international students.

The effect of COVID on China’s education system

As most working in international education will testify to, borders closures during 2020 massively impacted the sector.

However, some negative effects of reduced student numbers were offset by a rapid expansion in online learning. China was ahead of the curve on this, having put a focus on online learning in its 2035 plan, listing the internet, big data and AI as key determinants in improving its online offering.

So, when a shift to online was forced on global education providers in 2020, China accelerated the online goal further, with its centralised form of government meaning resources could be pooled and shared to facilitate such. For example, 22 online education platforms were consolidated to offer 24,000 free online courses to Chinese higher education institutions.

However, as with many other nations, tough border restrictions also affected international student numbers in China, with the 80,000 African students - who quite often go to China for full-degree programmes from enrolment to graduation - particularly impacted.

The pull-factors: What makes China an attractive study destination

A range of pull factors are at play in why students are increasingly attracted to the best Chinese universities.

A 2018 journal article, “The Emergence of a Regional Education Hub: Rationales of International Students’ Choice of China as the Study Destination”, surveyed 1700 international students, offering valuable insight for recruiters and marketers in the international student market in China.

The survey found that the ongoing improvement in quality of education was the key reason for international students choosing China. Economic factors ranked second, chiefly due to the affordability of the best Chinese universities’ education fees and lower living costs.

A Chinese government policy of offering scholarships to over 60,000 international students to study in China was also an undeniable pull factor.

Other pull factors for international students include China’s:

  • Importance in the world economy and associated opportunities potentially for students and their post-university careers.
  • Constant improvement in university rankings. In the latest Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, two of the best Chinese universities ranked in the top 25 and seven (or eight, including Hong Kong) in the top 150: 
    1. Tsinghua University (=20th)
    2. Peking University (23rd)
    3. (University of Hong Kong - 39th)
    4. Fudan University (=70th)
    5. University of Science and Technology of China (=87th)
    6. Zhejiang University (=94th)
    7. Shanghai Jiao Tong University (100th)
    8. Nanjing University (=111th)
  • Growing reputation as an innovation leader, leading to it attracting some of the brightest students, particularly in the STEM space.
  • Attraction as a place to live for students in terms of the wide range of leisure, cultural and tourist activities.

Implications for international education recruiters and marketers recruiting Chinese students abroad

China’s plans to become an educational superpower and the effects this will have on future flows of international students is an ever-evolving situation, impossible to predict with great accuracy as global geopolitics and individual nation’s policies will potentially impact the international education sector.

But this and COVID aside, as George Hernandez noted in his interview with us, it is likely there will be a rebound in outgoing Chinese students over the next few years.

As borders open and the threat of COVID recedes, overseas study is likely to regain popularity with outgoing Chinese students. This stems from it being ultra competitive to get into tertiary education in China, with only the brightest students able to gain admission to the best Chinese universities. And while admission requirements for Chinese students to international institutions may also be deemed competitive, it is still considered 'easier' to get a quality education overseas.

This may change as China’s university sector expands and with it the capacity to enrol more local students. However, in the same way China is attractive as a destination for international students for the range of reasons noted above, international education still holds a great degree of attraction for outgoing Chinese students who go not just for the education but also for the great opportunity it offers to learn English in country while also being immersed in a great cultural experience.

What are the best Chinese universities?

Based on the THE rankings, here is a brief rundown on what the top seven best Chinese universities have to offer as unique selling points for recruiters or marketers.

Tsinghua University
Founded: 1911
Location: Haidian District, northwest Beijing
Ranking: #20

One of the top universities in the world for engineering and computer science, and also one of the most influential and prestigious universities in China. Tsinghua offers over 500 courses in English.

Peking University (PKU)
Founded: 1898, the oldest university in China
Location: Haidian District, northwest Beijing
Ranking: #23

PKU’s National School of Development (NSD) is a leadingChinese think tank. Through the NSD, PKU is crucial to China’s modernisation. International students will find PKU an ideal university to study because of its combination of traditional Chinese heritage and western influence.

Fudan University
Founded: 1905
Location: Four campuses at the centre of Shanghai in Handan, Fenglin, Zhangjiang and Jiangwan
Ranking: #70

With one of the largest student populations in China (more than 45,000 Chinese students), Fudan University is a modern, comprehensive university and one of the most selective schools in China. It is also a hub for international students, with 15% studying undergraduate programs in the university.

University of Science and Technology of China (USTC)
Founded: 1958
Location: Hefei, Anhui province
Ranking: #87

A prominent university regarded in China as the “Cradle of Scientific Elites”, USTC is a leader in science and technology led by the most renowned scientists in China.

Zhejiang University (ZJU)
Founded: as early as 1897
Location: Hangzhou, Zhejiang province across seven campuses
Ranking: #94

As one of the best Chinese universities, ZJU prides itself on a culture of innovation and creativity. ZJU’s International College admits upwards of 7,000 international students from 148 countries.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU)
Founded: 1896
Location: Minhang District, Shanghai, China
Ranking: #100

SJTU has gained international recognition for its comprehensive, innovative and research-oriented programs, with students from more than 100 countries studying there. For the last decade, it has been regarded as the fastest developing university in the country.

Nanjing University (NJU)
Founded: 1902
Location: Nanjing, Jiangsu Province
Ranking: #111

NJU was one of the first universities in China to enrol international students. It is very active around international cooperation with first-class universities and research institutes around the world.

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