Middle-class expansion ‘to buttress Chinese student flows’

Nuanced signals suggest a long-haul future for world’s biggest market

November 7, 2018
Glass-bottom bridge at Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon
Source: Getty

Complex social, economic and demographic developments will temper the impact of China’s much-hyped population decline, ensuring that the East Asian giant remains a buoyant source of international students for many years, according to an analysis.

Research by LEK Consulting found that a mixed bag of factors – some likely to stymie student flows, others reinforcing them – would soften but not smother growth in Chinese enrolments, which provide crucial cash for many Western university systems.

On one side of the ledger, population decline – the legacy of China’s one-child policy – has slashed the estimated college-age population by 28 per cent since 2010, and will shave it by another 10 per cent by 2025.

China has also boosted its undergraduate education delivery capacity by more than 20 per cent since 2011, and growth in bilingual school education and English training is eliminating the need for many Chinese students to undertake pathway or language programmes overseas.

On the other hand, the school-age population is expected to rebound following the 2013 relaxation of the one-child policy. And although the economic boom is softening from the double-figure growth in gross domestic product recorded at the beginning of the decade, that may not dampen the hunger for education among those able to afford it, with the number of affluent households projected to grow by 69 per cent in the five years to 2022.

Anip Sharma, a Singapore-based partner in LEK’s global education practice, said that the increasing affordability of education for Chinese families could trump the impacts of demographic decline.

He said that education was the “ultimate consumer good” in China, absorbing almost 9 per cent of household spending. This compared with 4 per cent in other emerging markets, even though Chinese families generally had fewer children.

Taking enrolments in Australia as an example, he said that the Chinese market would grow at a slower rate than it has in the past. But while India could catch up to China in “incremental” growth – the annual increase in enrolments, in raw number terms – China would probably remain Australia’s largest source country.

Mr Sharma said that Australian universities needed to adapt to China’s changing landscape, for example by focusing their recruitment efforts on smaller cities where internationally focused education was still rare. Bilingual schools also offered natural “in-country partnerships”, he added.

“Like all markets, when they shift, it behoves the incumbents to think about opportunities differently and innovate,” he said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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