The growth of Chinese students in international universities: risks and opportunities.

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In the late 1970s, Iranians were the most populous groups of international students on the Georgetown University campus, in Washington DC. This is where Marguerite Dennis was a young admissions officer. When occurred the Iranian Revolution in 1979, they were suddenly all sent home. What Dennis is nowadays telling, and even warning, is that this could gradually happen with the Chinese students on Western campuses.

CHINESE STUDENT MARKET: THE CHINESE STORM ON THE WEST

There are still more and more Chinese students willing to study abroad. According to a report published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, there are almost as many Chinese students as UK students entering full-time taught master’s programs. It represents about a quarter of all entrants in 2013.

This has been a welcome source of income for many Western universities, but it has made them more vulnerable to a potential slowdown of the conveyor belt. Three reasons of this potentiality would be: an aging Chinese population, a slowing Chinese economy and a fiercer oppressive political environment which sees the Western education as a threat.

Only demography can be more easily predicted: according to the United Nations Population Division, the 18-23 years old segment of Chinese population is likely to decrease by more than a fifth in the coming years. It should then stabilize until 2040 and decline again by another fifth by 2050.

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“With further development of China’s economy and also with the societal value system of China – families have always attached huge importance to…education – the family will do everything to help and encourage their kids to pursue studies, not only in China but also abroad,” said Shen Yang, minister counsellor for education at the Chinese Embassy in London. Despite of the possible decline of the Chinese population, the number of Chinese students abroad shouldn’t be impacted. Why? Because of the rising wealth, which will lead more and more families to send their children study abroad. Shen Yang’s considerations have been confirmed with the UN statistics which show that from 2010 to 2015, the Chinese population aged of 18 to 23 has already dropped by a quarter and yet the number of overseas Chinese students doubled on the same period.

Although the Chinese economic growth has been slowing down these recent years, the Chinese government has decided to redistribute more wealth to the population, which means that the Chinese households may have more to spend and this results for Shen Yang to the ultimate consumer purchase in China: education.

Chinese invest in the Education of their Child!

Andrew Scott Conning, a doctoral candidate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and author of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education report, adds that paradoxically, if the economy is instable, Chinese families will see greater incentive in sending their children studying abroad, where there are likely more opportunities.

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The problem of Chinese Education system

A complicating factor for Chinese families is the instability of China’s currency. The real take off of the Chinese students sent to UK didn’t really begin until the big reduction in the value of sterling after the financial crisis. However, a yuan devaluation occurred last August, making foreign studies more expensive for Chinese families. Thus, sending their children abroad can be a risky bet that takes time to be profitable.

Matt Durnin, head of research in China for the British Council, considers that the need to go overseas could be reduced if there were better domestic institutions which appears to be the case if we look at China’s own university ranking, where there are more and more Chinese universities.

However, with the massive expansion in university places during the 2000s, the earnings premium for domestic graduates has been decreasing: those entering the labor market in 2008 earned 27 per cent less than those in 2002. Many of the graduated students are then led to take jobs that is accessible with only a secondary school education, no matter they stay abroad or return in China. The average starting salary for a foreign bachelor’s degree is about 5,000 yuan (£544) a month when back in China, which still represent double of the Chinese graduates. So even if foreign diploma are very valued by the Chinese families, they need to be recognized at the same value by companies.

From a political point of view, even if sending children studying abroad isn’t prohibited, the Chinese government tries to reduce the Western impacts on Chinese political system, since returning students are politically more neutral and claim more and more Western values.

For now, there are no strategies for the foreign universities to limit any shock in the Chinese market, but what they can do is to make themselves more attractive to Chinese students. Chinese students overseas often faces problems such as a lack of social integration, poor English, weak critical thinking and a tendency to produce poorly referenced essays. However, because of the revenues Chinese students generate for the foreign universities, they began to introduce some package applications to ease their admissions despite of some lacks of competences. Consequently, not only do they arrive in the West with a lack of English, but also with totally different cultural assumptions and communication mindsets. Thus, they don’t receive consistent support and they naturally stick together. This a crucial point foreign universities need to improve and randomize where students stay in their first year is the solution Pennsylvania’s universities found as solution.

Study Abroad is a Great Asset

No matter the good elements and the bad points for Chinese children to study or not abroad, if they decide to do so, they need a great sense of adaptation in order to come out of their shell.

Olivier VEROT

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