Covid-19 will not dent Chinese demand for international education

Coronavirus will not stop China’s growing and ambitious middle class from seeking a Western university education for their children, says Sabrina Wang

October 31, 2020
Chinese student
Source: iStock

When Covid-19 first came to prominence earlier this year, many Western commentators wondered aloud whether it might be the end of an era for international education. In particular, would the virus permanently depress the flow of students out of China – worth an estimated US$30 billion (£23 billion) a year in tuition fees alone?

University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones, for instance – who had previously warned about Australian universities’ reliance on Chinese income – speculated in Times Higher Education that the pandemic offered an opportunity for the Chinese government to recall its students and redirect them to domestic universities instead.

In the event, a certain amount of ingenuity has helped Western institutions avoid financial catastrophe. New York University, for instance, has redirected 2,300 Chinese undergraduates and 800 graduates from its campuses in the US and Abu Dhabi to its base in Shanghai for the new academic year.

Other international universities have established online or hybrid offerings aimed at Chinese students, sometimes in partnership with universities in neighbouring regions such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, which have experienced big enrolment leaps this year as some Chinese students have preferred to stay closer to home.

But are we really seeing the beginning of a permanent realignment of the international student market? There is good reason to think not.

At three o’clock one 1978 morning, US president Jimmy Carter received a phone call from his national science adviser. According to Carter’s account, the adviser told him that the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, had “insisted that I should call you now to see if you would permit 5,000 Chinese students to come to the US to study”. Cater replied: “Tell him to send a hundred thousand.”

This beginning of China’s export of students predated the establishment of a formal diplomatic relationship between the US and China. Yet when people express amazement at the meteoric rise of China, they often overlook the key role that international education has played in this “economic miracle” – a role that the Chinese government foresaw and purposely pursued. And even though the best Chinese universities have themselves become knowledge powerhouses, the West is still seen as an important source of expertise.

More to the point, China is still far short of being able to meet the domestic demand for higher education. According to the most recent statistics, from 2017, there are 100 million Chinese people between the ages of 15 and 19. However, there are only about 3,000 colleges in China. Even if only 50 per cent of young people wanted to go to university, that would amount to nearly 17,000 per institution: many do not have anything like that capacity.

One of the manifestations of the pressure on the system is the Chinese college entry examination, the gao kao, whose notorious difficulty is a means to ration limited domestic higher education resources. Nor is domestic capacity likely to expand quickly. Under the current system, private colleges are not encouraged because it is harder for the state to ensure that they instil official ideology in their students. However, public universities are not profitable, so they struggle to expand their intakes.

Moreover, many domestic institutions lack quality. Hence, for China, outsourcing university education both eases the pressure on domestic provision and produces better qualified graduates for its labour market. It also enables the government to focus on the most profitable sector of the economy: manufacturing and technology development.

Parents also play a crucial role in this dynamic. While China’s rising middle class worships education, it doesn’t always grasp its value or purpose. Since the top domestic institutions only admit elites, ordinary students are left to choose between a mediocre domestic institution – attendance of which will leave them feeling inferior in their later years – and an exotic (and often higher ranked) overseas one. Many opt for the latter for reasons of sheer tourism; most Chinese students want to go to the West primarily to experience a new lifestyle and to make new friends.

In other words, higher education in China has become just another luxury good to buy for personal gratification. And in a culture of saving up for the education of their children, parents are happy to bankroll their offspring’s overseas dreams. That looks unlikely to change any time soon.

Sabrina Y. Wang is a consulting educator specialising in college test preparation.

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