Asians take new Silk Road to the heart of America

Growing middle class in China credited for surge in students from region. John Morgan writes

November 18, 2010

The number of overseas students in the US is continuing to rise, with recent growth driven by a surge in recruitment from China.

According to figures released this week, the number of Chinese students in the US rose by 30 per cent last year, an increase seen as evidence of growth in the Asian nation's middle class and its appetite for higher education.

The figures are detailed in an analysis of student movements between the US and the rest of the world, published by the Institute of International Education (IIE).

The IIE, a non-profit body that helps to administer the Fulbright international-exchange programme, publishes its Open Doors report annually with support from the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

In 2009-10, the number of overseas students enrolled in US institutions rose by 2.9 per cent to 690,923, the report shows.

This is down from a 7.7 per cent rise in 2008-09.

The IIE says that growth in 2009-10 was "primarily driven by a 30 per cent increase in Chinese student enrolment in the US to a total of nearly 128,000 students", making China the leading exporter to the US academy.

Peggy Blumenthal, chief operating officer at the IIE, said lower overall growth in the US' intake was evidence of students' financial concerns in light of the economic crisis.

She added that the increase in students coming from China, where economic growth has remained strong, stemmed from the country's "growing middle class, a growing desire for students to get the best education in the world".

Many in China find there are "not enough places in their own country that provide high-quality undergraduate education", she said.

Allan Goodman, president of the IIE, highlighted the broader significance of educational links between the US and Asia. China, India and South Korea account for 44 per cent of all overseas students in the US.

China and India, the world's most populous countries as well as being among its fastest-growing economies, are also the largest sources of overseas students in the UK.

Dr Goodman said the US' educational links with the regions were "going to be as significant in this century as the Silk Road was 1,000 years ago", pointing to the international backgrounds of recent US Nobel prizewinners in the sciences as evidence.

Asked whether rapidly rising fees at many US institutions could act as a deterrent, Dr Goodman said there was "great diversity" in charges.

The option to attend community colleges early in their courses before moving on to university would become more popular with overseas undergraduates, he argued.

And in nations such as India and China, he added, saving for higher education was culturally accepted and seen as "the biggest expenditure of (people's) lifetimes".

Others have argued that the stranglehold Western nations have had on the international student market may be under threat as developing nations improve their university systems and regional hubs for higher education develop closer to home.

Overseas students make up 3.5 per cent of total enrolment in the US - below the levels seen in the UK, where 18 per cent of students came from abroad in 2008-09.

Britain remains the most popular destination for US students heading abroad, but its tally of 31,342 students in 2009-10 was 6 per cent down on the previous year.

Ms Blumenthal said US students were looking for more diverse options, including those that were "less expensive" than the UK.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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