Top Chinese graduates opt to stay at home for postgraduate study

Proportion of leavers going overseas for further courses on a downward trend that predates pandemic

March 2, 2022
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The number of graduates of leading Chinese universities pursuing further study overseas is on a downward trajectory that predates the pandemic and has accelerated through it, possibly signalling a major shift in the global mobility of academic talent.

Times Higher Education analysis of graduate employment reports published by China’s 10 top-ranked universities, as rated by THE, indicates that the proportion of students enrolling with a foreign institution after graduation has declined across the board since 2017.

At the same time, the number of graduates taking postgraduate courses at Chinese universities has increased significantly, reflecting the growing strength of domestic higher education provision as well as Covid-19 and geopolitical tensions.

Overseas study lacks appeal for Chinese graduates

Overseas study lacks appeal for Chinese graduates

At Tsinghua University, for example, 813 graduates who went on to further study decided to go overseas in 2017, representing 34 per cent of all those re-enrolling in education. By 2019, this had shrunk to 699 (31 per cent), and the post-pandemic figure for 2021 is 409 (17 per cent).

A similar trend is observed at Fudan University, with the proportion of graduates seeking further study who went overseas sliding from 49 per cent in 2017 to 43 per cent in 2019, and 31 per cent a year later; Fudan is yet to publish its 2021 report.

At top-ranked Peking University, the shift is from 41 per cent going overseas in 2017 to 27 per cent in 2021. However, in Peking’s case the number of students seeking further study abroad held steady until coronavirus hit.

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“The trend that more graduates [are staying] in domestic institutions instead of going abroad seems obvious,” said Chen Ningyang, a researcher at Soochow University. “Some of the possible causes could be the pandemic, the strained Sino-US relationship, the further expansion of graduate education nationwide, the changing domestic job market, and a range of socio-economic factors associated with a heightened neijuan culture – which led to a rising demand for degrees across job sectors.”

The notion that students of China’s most prestigious universities are choosing to stay at home is backed up by a survey of nearly 8,000 Chinese students conducted by Kantar on behalf of the educational technology firm New Oriental. This found that about 45 per cent of all respondents said that they were interested in studying abroad in 2015. Among students at universities participating in the Double First Class and Project 985 and 211 excellence initiatives, this dropped to 29 per cent in recent years before now stabilising at around 35 per cent. In contrast, interest among students at other universities has increased in recent years and currently stands at 50 per cent.

Experts acknowledged that the pandemic had been a significant influence over the past two years, with Xiong Weiyan, director of the MA in international higher education and management at Lingnan University Hong Kong, noting that “unsatisfactory anti-pandemic measures in the major study-abroad destinations, like the US and the UK, worsened the situation”.

However, Anna Esaki-Smith, co-founder of the Education Rethink consultancy, emphasised that China “has made the rise of their most elite universities in the global rankings a priority”.

“There is less of a reason for Chinese students to leave the country in order to earn an academic credential that is globally recognised and valued,” she said.

Ms Esaki-Smith said that economic factors might also have proved influential. “As China’s economy matures, GDP growth has slowed, so household incomes are not increasing at the same rate as before,” she said.

However, Ms Esaki-Smith questioned whether domestic universities, “no matter how highly ranked”, could provide the same type of “formative experience” as study abroad.

Dr Xiong agreed, arguing that the trend towards domestic postgraduate study “should accompany efforts to enhance internationalisation by providing authentic international learning experiences at home”.


Print headline: Chinese graduates opt to study at home

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