The number of Chinese students studying overseas has grown exponentially from 39,000 in 2000 to 662,100 in 2018.
Some attribute this to China’s rising middle class (and their rising incomes) who want to send their children overseas for a superior education. Others contend it is also part of a government-driven initiative to skill up China’s population and achieve the 2049 goal of building "a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious".
The reality is, these are just several of a range of factors why Chinese students study overseas.
Gaokao: Pathway or barrier to education?
Each year, millions of Chinese students sit for China’s National College Entrance Examination (NCEE). Known as ‘gaokao’, 2020 saw a bumper crop of 10.7 million students take the exam, an increase of 400,000 from the year before.
While Western tertiary institutions assess student admissions across a range of measures (aptitude tests, extracurricular activities, essays, recommendation letters etc), the gaokao score is the sole determinant of gaining a place at a Chinese university.
So, performing well in the gaokao can decide the fate of many families in terms of their children gaining a place in the limited number of highly ranked Chinese institutions which is deemed crucial as a step up to become more upwardly mobile. This places immense pressure on students to perform well in gaokao, leading to concerned parents looking at the study abroad option instead.
There has also been controversy around regional inequality. For example, parents have long argued those living in Beijing are unfairly advantaged because the scores required for Beijing locals to get into Beijing’s high concentration of prestigious schools, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, are lower than those required from other provinces.
What’s more, parents also need to factor in that students who fail to score well must register again as high school seniors to take the gaokao the following year. The immense pressure of gaokao is ample justification for Chinese families to offer their children the less stressful path of receiving a high-quality education abroad, even if this comes at a greater financial cost.
There is also the issue of “mianzi” or “face”. Students who don’t fare well in the gaokao may choose to study abroad to restore mianzi and prove themselves against peers who achieved higher results, therefore having a “second chance” to achieve their professional goals.
Studying overseas remains an attractive option
Apart from issues with gaokao, several other factors come into play that lead to Chinese students studying overseas.
- Parental influence
- The “total experience”-- the opportunity to be independent and broaden horizons
- University rankings
- The promise of a better future career
- The role of agents
- The role of alumni
Just like parents anywhere, parents in China want the best for their children. However, in contrast to the West, Chinese parents still have a greater influence on the education and professional path their children take.
Sending children overseas to study also holds some social cachet, so Chinese parents will look to and be guided by what other families are doing - a case of “keeping up with the Wangs”. Here again, we see mianzi at play as parents send their children to study overseas to maintain or improve social status, particularly when their child scores poorly in the gaokao.
The “total experience” - the opportunity to be independent and broaden horizons
Another big drawcard for Chinese students to study overseas is the desire for a more “total experience”.
As well as going abroad to obtain an international qualification, students also learn a foreign language, are immersed in a new culture, meet a diverse range of people, and develop independence and resilience, which “globalises” their education experience and broadens their horizons.
For some, being in a more liberated society when studying overseas also plays into this, particularly around being more creatively free and learning in an environment where expectations on students are maybe not quite as high as those within Chinese universities.
As outlined in a recent post, China’s education sector is on the rise.
However, important rankings tables - such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings - continue to be dominated by colleges in the UK and US. This means that even as Chinese authorities attempt to raise the international and domestic standing of Chinese institutions, Chinese parents will (at least for the foreseeable future) continue considering institutions abroad whose rankings offer greater prestige for their family and children.
A more promising future career
Chinese students taking out a degree from an internationally renowned university has long been seen as the opening for a more promising career. Besides the prestige factor and future jobs that might come from this, studying abroad also opens up possibilities to work outside of China post-degree that could lead to better jobs at home upon their return.
However, particularly over the past five years, this push factor appears to be losing some of its power. A New Oriental Group survey found that the number of students intending to seek out work abroad after they complete their studies has been declining. This could correlate to a fall in Chinese students studying overseas, particularly if study abroad students hold fears about competing for work back in China against peers who studied locally.
The role of agents
Agents still play an important role in influencing study abroad decisions. Quite often their ability to virtually guarantee a place in an overseas institution is enough incentive for parents and students to avoid gaokao and seek options outside of China. Their expertise and understanding of foreign institutions and education systems also put them in a prime position to offer objective advice on study abroad options.
A less considered factor that may influence study choices is the opinions of the millions of Chinese students who have already studied abroad. The New Oriental Group survey points to 70% of alumni as being happy to recommend others to study overseas, meaning alumni are a great resource for international universities seeking to build brand and trust among prospective students in China.
This is why alumni are increasingly used in recruitment marketing campaigns - the “real” stories they offer prospective students, and the professional positions they find themselves in on their return to China, offer positive reinforcement about studying overseas.
Deterrents to studying overseas
Some issues act as deterrents to Chinese students studying overseas.
The massive investment in education by Chinese authorities recently illustrated in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, may encourage more students to stay at home to study as local institutions jump up in rankings and perceptions of them improve.
Notwithstanding the obvious short-term barriers COVID-19 created to studying overseas, it is also likely to have some long-reaching effects. For example, a British Council survey of 11,000 Chinese students in March–April 2020 found 13% unlikely to return, 22% likely to cancel study plans and 39% undecided. Until herd immunity is achieved, borders fully reopen and more confidence returns around overseas travel, COVID-19 will continue to impact the number of Chinese students studying overseas.
Approvals of more joint education ventures in China by authorities in 2020 may slightly dampen demand for full overseas study experiences. Take, for example, Rutger’s ROSE. This highly successful venture was a novel approach to managing the issues of COVID-19 and studying overseas but could lead to more Chinese students staying at home and enrolling in programs like ROSE.
And the possibility of continuing regional and global instability, such as the US-China trade war and China’s ongoing political and trade issues with Australia, may lead to more Chinese students studying at home.
Despite these issues, there is reason to believe the numbers of Chinese students wanting to study overseas will rebound.
Education recruitment specialist George Hernandez from Sofiri expressed his positive sentiment about such in a recent Sinorbis interview, and 2020 research by higher education analysts QS Quacquarelli Symonds found that few Chinese students were considering giving up their plans to study overseas, with most instead choosing to either defer or delay their entry.