The decline in Chinese students attending US graduate schools is expected to cause major problems for the country’s postgraduate sector given its huge reliance on this cohort, an international conference has heard.
Debra Stewart, emeritus president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said that the slowdown – caused by stuttering economic growth and growing postgraduate provision in China itself – was likely to have a “very serious impact”.
Speaking at the European Association for International Education’s annual conference, which took place in Glasgow from 15 to 18 September, Dr Stewart said that graduate schools had been hit by three consecutive falls in Chinese enrolments “after a decade of double-digit growth”.
Recruitment from China fell by 3 per cent this year, whereas growth had been as high as 20 per cent as recently as 2012, she said.
“China’s economy appears to be coming apart at the seams and there is an economic tailspin that might make it hugely difficult for students to come to the US,” said Dr Stewart.
Dr Stewart, who was president of the CGS from 2000 to 2014, said that the impact of the Chinese downturn had yet to be fully felt thanks to the huge surge in applications from Indian students that grew year-on-year by 12 per cent this year.
“The increase with Indian students has been crazy, but we’ve seen problems with the rupee falling against the dollar, so who knows what will happen,” she said.
She described US graduate schools as “traditionally the jewel in the crown of US higher education”, and said that American institutions had to “sharpen” their offer to Chinese students, but recognised that the trends pushing down enrolment were “outside their control”.
Marlene Johnson, executive director and chief executive officer of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which champions cross-border education in the US, said that the growing popularity of US undergraduate education for Chinese students may also be affecting graduate recruitment.
“We have gone from having almost no Chinese undergraduates in the US to them representing about half of all [Chinese] students in the country,” she said.
“There are now huge opportunities in China, so many of them want to go home to study,” she said.
Linda Tobash, a higher education consultant at the Institute for International Education, said that the dip in Chinese graduate students, which make up about a third of all overseas enrolments, was one of several pressures on the US higher education system.
Undergraduate enrolment is set to decrease as the number of high school graduates hit its peak of 3.4 million a few years ago, while potential older students (the average age of a student in the US is 27 due to community college enrolments) were being deterred by higher fees in the wake of the global economic crisis, she said. Public universities had also seen state subsidies cut, making them more reliant on higher tuition fees, she added.
“Many states report that their public universities are receiving 50 per cent of their revenues through fees – this was traditionally about 30 per cent in the past,” she said.
Martha Johnson, assistant dean at the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center, said that US higher education faced a “perfect storm” of downward demographics, public spending cuts and rising concern over graduate debt.
“The amount of debt that students are willing to take on has completely changed,” said Ms Johnson.