Why China no longer attracts international students

Expat news
  • etudiants universitaires en Chine
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Published on 2023-02-15 at 11:15 by Asaël Häzaq
What if studying abroad was a passport to achieving a new level of freedom? In China, the idea is becoming more and more widespread. In the wake of the pandemic and, most importantly, with the consequences of the zero-covid policy, Chinese students are now keener on studying abroad. But the once-popular destinations for studying abroad have changed. As China reopened its borders in early January 2023, hoping for a return to normalcy, many Chinese students are hoping for a brighter future elsewhere. 

Fewer restrictions result in more departures

Beijing is still taking stock of the first wave of contamination (more than 80% of the population was contaminated by January 21), but at the same time, Chinese students are dreaming of a future beyond borders. The country reopened its primary and secondary schools, but more and more university students are looking to pursue their higher education overseas. Although China has only partially recognized the impact of the first wave, it is leaving no stone unturned for a smooth return to normalcy. For Chinese students, this means going back to school.

Students enrolled in foreign institutions have been having a hard time lately. Since the government announced that it would no longer recognize courses and diplomas earned through distance learning, there has been a rush to apply for visas, and students are hastily booking plane tickets. Chinese authorities believe that university students must attend classes in person to be recognized as having completed their studies. This brutal decision by the government only accelerated the Chinese students' exodus.  

Sinorbis, a technology and marketing company for higher education, has been studying data from Chinese search engines since the reopening of the borders. From its observations, searches for studies in Canada have increased by 81%, while the United Kingdom spiked to 138 percent and Australia to 128 percent. These are the three favorite destinations for Chinese students. Conversely, they no longer seem to dream of America. In fact, searches for US destinations have dropped by 16%.

US universities' declining popularity

Are American universities bearing the brunt of the tense relationship between the United States and China? The Chinese spy balloon case is one of the latest episodes in the tumultuous soap opera between the two world powers. The US used to be one of the top destinations for Chinese students, thanks to its world-renowned universities and the prestige of the "American Dream." But former President Trump and his hard-liner policies towards China have tarnished this beautiful image. The rising anti-Chinese sentiment during the pandemic further dented the reputation of the United States. As of January, the number of Chinese on student visas in the US was nearly 30 percent lower than in 2020.

On the other hand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia seem to be gaining popularity among international students, as they are with professionals and other expats. Students are very enthusiastic about these destinations, which, in their opinion, have a lot to offer, such as internationally recognized universities. Asian countries, led by Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, are also becoming increasingly popular among Chinese students. Their geographical proximity and the quality of their education make them equally competitive destinations.

Studying abroad: A passport to employment 

Chinese students are also considering professional opportunities abroad as they envision their future. Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan are facing severe labor shortages and provide the best opportunities. They are all struggling to attract foreign talent. For instance, Canada expects to welcome 460,000 new permanent residents this year, 485,000 by 2024 and 500,000 by 2025. Likewise, Japan is actively seeking foreign workers: 800,000 by 2030 and 6.74 million by 2040.

Since Brexit, the United Kingdom has been rolling out the red carpet for international students, and its efforts have paid! The country has welcomed 40% more international students than in 2017 (the year after the Brexit referendum), including a majority of Chinese and Indian students. It is also an economic matter for the United Kingdom. Actually, the tuition fees for international students are, on average, twice as high as those established for locals, a more controversial aspect of UK's education policy that the authorities are careful not to emphasize.

Young people want to escape China

"Run xue" is a term used to describe the act of leaving home in a hurry to go study abroad. Since last spring, this has been a trending expression on social media. Skillfully combining the verb "to run" in English and the word "study" in Chinese (xue), the composite expression means going abroad to study. More than a play on words, it expresses an urgency among young Chinese who have been traumatized by the zero Covid policy that they consider dehumanizing. Beyond this, young people mainly fear the power of Chinese authorities, which can interfere in all aspects of their everyday lives. Moreover, following their observation of what was happening overseas, they understood that although life in another country could still be difficult, they would nevertheless enjoy some kind of freedom.

They are ready to pay thousands of pounds for a taste of British life. They dream of a job in Australia, Canada, or the United States. Although the latter is losing ground, it still attracts Chinese students. In China, conversely, the job crisis and youth unemployment are driving more and more people away. For these Chinese students, "run xue" sounds like the solution to escape the grip of Beijing and live freely. In fact, more than one million of them are currently studying abroad. Although Beijing claims that 80% of students return after their studies, they do not seem to be in a hurry to return home.

The return of international students to China

What about international students in China? As of August 24, 2022, they can officially return to Chinese universities. They are fewer in numbers, though!

In fact, the measure only applies to students seeking a long-stay study visa, which is gradually being restored. Since March, small groups of Korean, Russian and Pakistani students have been returning to China. As of August 2022, the list of countries authorized to send their nationals has been extended to include France, India, Japan, and Malaysia.

Prior to the pandemic, China had been attracting nearly 500,000 international students every year, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education's figures from 2018 and 2019. The world's second-largest country was becoming increasingly attractive to international students seduced by career opportunities available there. Studying in China meant extending one's professional network, enriching one's CV, and learning one of the world's most widely spoken languages, at a much lower cost than studying in the UK or the US. Studying in China was then considered an investment for the future.

However, the Covid crisis brought about a bleaker outlook. According to China Admission, a support platform for international students in China, the country counted less than 20,000 international students in August 2022. Rather than the pandemic, the situation was mainly due to the crisis management by the Chinese authorities, with a lot of constraints on most international students. Many of them expressed their dismay with inadequate online courses (due to time zone differences), a lack of communication with universities, and the cost of studies that were still based on face-to-face courses.

Does the end of the zero Covid policy mean the resumption of studies in China?

Not really! Even today, international students are left dangling by the government's decisions. Last winter's outbreak once again postponed the arrival of international students in China. However, the government abandoned its zero Covid policy in early January. Since their interest in China is still alive, international students are hoping for a less eventful year in 2023. These students dream of career opportunities in or related to China. They are still interested in its language, culture, and history. For those who managed to return to China after the August 2022 measures, it was a dream that finally came true after nearly two years of waiting. 

But the country is now facing an unprecedented situation: more Chinese are going to study abroad while fewer foreigners are coming to study in China. The Chinese authorities are taking stock of the situation and admit that it will take time to recover the levels of 2019.

Useful links:

China Admissions

Chinese government scholarships