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The Chinese International Student

January 10, 2022 |   Nicolas Chu

Every year students leave their hometowns and travel overseas for their education. China is the top country of origin for international students around the world and is the number 1 country of origin for the US, UK and Australia. According to the China Educational Bureau, in 2019, over 700,000 Chinese students packed their bags and headed overseas to study – 6.25% more than in 2018. 

Chinese students are scattered around the globe, primarily seeking an enriching experience and higher-quality educational goals whilst also securing future employment prospects. Historically, most Chinese international students choose the US as their preferred destination, country, followed by the UK, Australia, and Canada. But with an increase in anti-Asian violence in the US, the numbers are changing and, according to New Oriental Education and Technology Group, the UK replaced the US as the number one destination in 2020.

Australia is a popular study destination for students around the globe.

Australia remains a popular study destination for students around the globe, with over 730,000 international students enrolled in educational programs across the country as of 2019. Over 200,000 of those students were from China.

In Australia, Chinese international students are mainly enrolled in higher education (79% in 2021, according to the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment). This is also the sector that generates the largest part of the education export profit for the local economy.

What has been COVID-19’s impact on the Chinese international student?

Since 2012, the number of Chinese international students enrolled in Australian institutions has grown year-over-year, from about 90,000 that year to more than 200,000 in 2019.

That changed in 2020, when COVID-19 hit, though the numbers aren’t dismal by any means.

According to the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment, there were just over 190,000 Chinese international students enrolled in December 2020. By September 2021, that number had dipped to slightly more than 166,000. (Due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions an enrolment does not mean that a student is currently in Australia.)

As border closures ease, those numbers are expected to rise as Chinese students return to resume or start their studies. According to the website China Daily, 92% of existing Chinese international students plan to return to their overseas schools in the near future.

Why would they want to come to a country that is so different to the place they call home – and what opportunities do these students present for organizations in the education sector around the globe?

What opportunity do Chinese international students present for Australian organisations?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics valued exports from international education in Australia at $18.8 billion from 2014-15, making it Australia's third-largest export at the time. According to, that number had risen to $37.6 billion by 2019.

In July 2020, Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge and Minister for Education Dan Tehan said in a joint media release that international education contributes $40 billion annually to Australia’s economy and supports 250,000 jobs.

Study Gold Coast found that $20 million is injected into the local economy for every 200 Chinese students studying at universities around the country. There’s no doubt that universities cannot afford to ignore this market, but how do we attract these students?

To understand how organisations can attract these individuals, we first need to understand who they are, where they’re from and what they’re looking for.

What level of study are Chinese students pursuing?

92% of Chinese students are leaving their home country for higher education (according to research by iResearch). In Australia, 47% of Chinese international students are studying to complete their Master’s degree, 38% plan to complete their Bachelor’s degree, and 4% their doctorates.

In the United States, roughly 16% of Chinese students were enrolled in business and management programs, while about 22% were studying math or computer science.

Why do Chinese international students head overseas?

Chinese students turn to overseas institutions of higher education for a number of reasons, including a belief it will give them a leg up in the Chinese job market. But they also want to expand their horizons and experience life outside of China.

Daxue Consulting found that most Chinese international students believe they are more competitive than their peers who studied in China when it comes to job hunting. They may be correct. According to Daxue, 20% of Chinese companies promote returnee students faster and 17.5% prefer returnees for core positions.

But 2020 research by New Oriental Education and Technology Group found that Chinese students also opted to head overseas to enrich their lives. This research found that:

  • 66% of students wanted to expand their international horizons
  • 64% wanted to enrich their life experiences
  • 46% of students left home to learn advanced knowledge
  • 44% of students want to study overseas to have better employment prospects in the future
  • 45% of students left China in order to improve their foreign language skills
  • 35% of students said they want to attend a globally renown foreign school

What are Chinese students looking for when heading overseas?

There are several important factors that Chinese international students consider when choosing which universities they apply to. These factors include;

Education quality & choice

The top factor in the decision-making process is the ranking of the university, the major they want to study and the general standard of education of each destination country.


The ”2020 Report on Chinese Students' Overseas Study” by New Oriental Education and Technology Group found that 57% of Chinese international students look at the ranking of a university first when choosing where to study. But this is followed closely by the presence of “appropriate majors” (56%).

A 2015 white paper by the same group revealed that 51% of students tend to choose schools with world top 100 ratings, 27% tend to choose from the world top 200 ratings, 8% from the world top 500 ratings, and only 8% are not influenced by university ratings.

The Australian Journal of Education published a study, “Chinese Students and Higher Education Destinations: Findings from a Choice Experiment”, which found that Chinese students focused more on the university ranking than on other factors. This desire was clear in 2009 as funding cuts to Australia’s higher education sector saw Chinese student numbers drop significantly as The Times Higher Education Supplement demoted many Australian universities in their annual reputation ranking. This ranking is commonly known as “the definitive list of the top-100 most powerful global university brands” and is read by students around the globe – especially Chinese students who are looking to secure a place at the best possible university. Many Chinese students also began to view Australian universities differently as the budget cuts decreased their perceived quality of education in Australia. Investment in higher education not only works to increase the reputation rankings of universities but also increases Chinese students’ perceived quality of education.

Cost and scholarship opportunities

Tuition fees and out-of-pocket expenses are the 2nd most important concern for Chinese students looking to decide on their next steps.


Chinese students, are concerned about how much they will have to spend on their education. The average overseas education budget for Chinese international students is about $110K, including tuition, living and housing expenses.  Thirty percent of students believe their working income in one to three years will equal the cost they spent to study abroad.

Scholarships for university fees and living expenses are incredibly attractive to overseas students.

The Chinese Government provides scholarships for high-achieving domestic students to pursue PhD degrees and postdoctoral research abroad through the China Scholarship Council (CSC).  The scholarships granted for these students vary from country to country, however, each PhD CSC student enrolled at an Australian university currently receives a scholarship of around AUD $20,400 a year to cover university fees and living expenses. Each visiting postdoctoral fellow or scholar receives about AUD $21,600. The more scholarships offered, the more Chinese students are likely to apply to universities overseas. In order to attract these students, it’s essential that countries around the globe continue to grow and develop connections with the China Scholarship Council in order to increase the number of available scholarships each year.


Ranking and cost are not the only things Chinese international students are concerned about. They’re also looking for a safe place to call home as they study. Whilst Chinese students aren’t necessarily limiting themselves to countries with a high safety ranking, they are unlikely to study in a country or region with a low safety rating. A 2021 Vision Overseas Consulting survey found that 50% of Chinese students looking to study overseas want to study in a country with a friendly attitude toward China. For countries looking to attract these students, it’s important that they enhance their perceived level of safety by promoting the country as a safe place for Chinese students to call home.

COVID-19-related safety issues also play a part in Chinese international students’ decision making. The same study revealed that 57% of prospective international Chinese students prefer to study in a country that has active policies for containing the pandemic. Fifty-four per cent said they’d choose a destination with a less severe pandemic situation.

Immigration policy and the visa process

International students cannot study abroad without a visa – so it’s no surprise that the visa process is a significant factor in the decision-making process. But visa and paperwork confusion is also something Chinese international students need the most help with.

According to New Oriental’s 2020 Report on Chinese Students’ Overseas Study

  •         55% of prospective students said they need help with paperwork guidance
  •         51% said they need help with interview preparation and instruction
  •         46% said they need help with application handling
  •         And 44% said they need help with visa guidance

Referral or recommendation from friends or relatives

Recommendation from trustworthy friends and relatives is also an important factor when Chinese students and their parents decide which school to apply to, particularly when these friends and relatives also have someone in their families already studying in that school.

Where do the Chinese students and their parents get information about overseas universities? The internet has been the uttermost important channel for them to obtain this information, with 80% of them getting the information from the internet, according to the white paper from New Oriental Group. 58% of them also get the information from study agencies, 48% and 44% from schoolmates/classmates and family/friends, only below 24% from other offline channels such as magazines, newspapers or TV.

There are also a number of websites, such as 51offer, which have been created solely to provide information about overseas education to Chinese students. These websites are often the first place Chinese students head to when researching potential universities and they are an essential marketing tool as they open the communication line between students and universities.

According to surveys and analysis by iResearch, Chinese students are not just looking for information on the universities themselves, they’re also seeking to find out more about the local area and the lifestyle they could expect if they were to attend these schools. This research found that students want to learn more about daily life and the cultural environment of the school and study destination in addition to information about the school itself (including expenses, policies and regulations for overseas students) and their chosen major.

Another important service, given the increasing demand for overseas universities from Chinese students, is counselling on careers and internship opportunities. In order to engage these students, it's essential that universities and organisations provide further information about the services available to overseas students as well as information about student life, local activities and attractions, restaurants and other facilities near to the university, cultural backgrounds, language and career support.

It is becoming more and more important for universities to develop comprehensive strategies for digital marketing in China, to provide the key information and services Chinese international students are looking for, and to reach them effectively via digital channels. This information and service will also provide reassurance to these students who are often worried about how they will adapt to studying and living in a foreign country; as they try to fit into a new culture, adapt to the language and lifestyle.

To learn more about how to develop an effective brand strategy for your university in China, watch our own demand webinar.

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