Chinese students won’t stop going West

Despite the pandemic, trade disputes and geopolitical tensions, several factors will continue to push and pull Chinese students abroad, says Nicolas Chu

December 30, 2021
A suitcase with the Chinese flag on it illustrating opinion article on Chinese student flows to Western universities
Source: iStock

For decades, students from China have comprised Western universities’ most coveted cohort of international students. Hailing from the largest population in the world, Chinese students contribute billions of dollars every year to Western economies and help make priceless advancements in research and innovation, entrepreneurial leadership and community diversity.

But after years of turbulence marked by a global pandemic, trade disputes and escalating geopolitical tension, some Western nations, such as the US, have seen Chinese enrolments decline, while others fear a similar pattern. However, the US fall 2021 enrolment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows evidence that a rebound is already starting to take effect. And there are many reasons why Chinese students will continue to seek a Western higher education. Here are six of them.

  1. Chinese universities don’t all measure up. While China’s domestic universities have steadily expanded over the past decade, they still can’t accommodate the demand from the largest population in the world. And even with more domestic choices than ever before, Chinese students still hold Western institutions in high regard. While Chinese universities are improving their rankings all the time, only two feature in the top 50 of the Times Higher Education 2022 World University Rankings, which remain dominated by US institutions. When it comes to education, Chinese culture is extremely rigorous and competitive, leaving many students aiming to achieve the best outcome possible. This often means pursuing a degree in a country such as the US.
  2. The gaokao creates stress and limitations. Another key reason that Chinese students look elsewhere for studies is to avoid one of the most difficult exams in the world, the gaokao. Every year, nearly 10 million students take the gruelling, multi-day exam to determine university placements. It has become increasingly controversial because of the intense pressure it places on young students. Only 15 per cent of test takers will be accepted into key Chinese institutions, leaving 8-9 million students looking for an alternative. International options are not contingent on how they score on the gaokao.
  3. The hukou effect limits Chinese students’ opportunities. The hukou is the rule that students need a local address to apply to domestic universities. For example, Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua and Peking universities both require a domicile address in Beijing. Generally, it is difficult for a student to apply for a Chinese university place outside their current location. While Chinese students battle this zoning protocol at home, their options are limitless when applying to a university abroad.
  4. The postgraduate market is thriving. This reflects the importance placed by Chinese students on having overseas experience on their résumé. Whether building on a domestic undergraduate qualification or working towards a postgraduate or doctoral qualification, those with the means and motivation are hungry for Western university places. Once again, there is a supply-and-demand issue for domestic postgraduate places; 3.4 million students apply each year for around 1 million places. That leaves 2.4 million applicants searching for opportunities outside the country.
  5. Cultural norms are shifting but a few constants remain. It’s fascinating to unpack why hundreds of thousands of Chinese students decide every year to travel across the world to pursue a college degree. The New Oriental 2021 report on Chinese students overseas tracked five years of data measuring overseas study motivations. Since 2018, the top priorities for these students have been studying at a famous foreign school, learning advanced knowledge, quality of education, safety and culture. The survey shows students appearing to be less motivated in 2021 than in earlier years by future employment prospects, improving language skills or learning about foreign culture. But all these factors speak to the importance of prestige and reputation of the host university. Moreover, “enrich life experience” has remained a constant motivator, closely followed by “broadening one’s horizon”.
  6. The side effects from the pandemic are beginning to wear off. While US undergraduate international enrolments show an overall decline of 21.2 per cent from fall 2019 to fall 2021, this year’s intake is 5.9 per cent better than 2020. Postgraduate international enrolments from fall 2019 to fall 2021 show overall 4.3 per cent growth, with 13.1 per cent positive change from fall 2020. The Omicron variant notwithstanding, there is good reason for the US education sector to be optimistic about the return of Chinese students. The New Oriental report found that only 7 per cent of those enrolled students who returned home during the pandemic intended to remain in China until graduation. And 92 per cent had plans to return to their university host country over the next 12 months to resume on-campus study.

It is clear that Chinese students will continue to head West in huge numbers for the foreseeable future.

Nicolas Chu is the founder and CEO of Sinorbis, a software company that specialises in helping higher education institutions recruit students from China through its integrated marketing platform. He is also a professor of practice at UNSW Business School in Australia. For more information on this topic, see Sinorbis’ newly released report Why Chinese Students Will Continue to Fuel the US Education System in 2022 & Beyond.

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Reader's comments (2)

Statistical data does not support the idea that Chinese students are increasing their enrollment at US universities. On the contrary they are showing a preference towards other countries such as the UK, Singapore and Japan, Chinese students in the US are subject to daily harassment particularly by the media and politicians. A Chinese student was killed recently in Chicago near the University of Chicago campus and prospective students in China are aware of the rampant violence and harassment in the US. Thus we see a drop in Chinese students preferred destination being the US from 51% in 2015 to 32% in 2021. A loss to the US economy caused directly by the actions of US politicians.
I concur with your sentiments. Globalization has really opened up the world of education and people are running to areas and regions with proven quality of education, facilities and personnel to drive innovations and growth.


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