The China challenge: Diversification and managing risk in international education

It might be the biggest “What if?” in international education. What if Chinese demand for study abroad changes? Or, more drastically still, what if something happens to significantly alter the nature and scale of outbound student mobility from China?

China has been a major driver of the global growth in mobility in recent decades, and it remains the world’s leading source of international students today. No other country sends as many students abroad, and none has had such a dramatic impact on the global marketplace for education.

Yet the Chinese market continues to evolve, and we can only anticipate further change in the years ahead. It has its own elite institutions and, for a growing field of prospective students, names like Tsinghua and Fudan are educational brands to rival the top tier of institutions abroad. The country has also become a major education destination in its own right, particularly for students from within Asia.

These are notable shifts but important indicators as well as to how China’s role in the global marketplace may continue to develop in the future. They also call attention to the fact that many destination countries, and the institutions within them, have increasingly come to rely on Chinese students.

The growth engine

The Economist reports that the number of Chinese applicants to the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) “surged” from 33 in 2007 to 2,309 in 2014. The 37 undergraduate students from China at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), meanwhile, grew to nearly 3,000 in 2014. “Nearly a tenth of [UIUC’s] fall freshman class – 684 students – hail from China,” reports Inside Higher Ed. In fact, the university is now home to more Chinese students (nearly 5,000 in total) than any other US institution.

These are striking examples but they also reflect a larger pattern of dramatic growth in Chinese enrolment in the US over the last 15 years. There were 59,939 Chinese students in the States in 2000 and 274,439 last year (an increase of 358%). The 2014 Open Doors country report notes, “China remains the leading place of origin for students coming to the United States for the fifth year in a row, and Chinese students now make up 31% of international students studying in the US.”

The situation is similar in other major destinations, including the UK where it is particularly acute at the postgraduate level. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) recently observed, “Over 37% of the total non-EU entrants to postgraduate studies [in the UK] are Chinese … A combination of continued growth from China coupled with decline or decelerated growth from other countries has led to an overreliance on China at postgraduate level.” Indeed, there are roughly as many Chinese students enrolled in UK masters programmes as there are British students.

The British Council estimates that, over the next decade, China will account for nearly half (44%) of the projected growth in UK postgraduate enrolment and adds, “The research, based on available demographic and economic data up to 2012, suggests an increasing reliance on Chinese and Indian postgraduate students to take up courses in the six main ‘destination’ countries for postgraduates: Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, the UK and USA.”

Another recent report in The Economist expands on this global view: “At the end of 2013 nearly 1.1 million Chinese were studying abroad, according to the Ministry of Education – more than three times as many as a decade earlier… Since at least 2009, China has provided the most foreign students not just to the English-speaking countries of the developed world but also to numerous others including France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Japan and South Korea.”

Back to “What if?

Forecasts continue to point to ongoing growth in Chinese outbound in the decade ahead, albeit not at the same dizzying pace as in the previous one. Leaving aside the prospect of an acute political, economic, or public health issue – the global economic crisis in 2008/09, for example, or the SARS outbreak in 2002 – that might intrude on such projections, what other factors might shape Chinese demand over the longer term?

Forecasters look to broader economic, social, and demographic trends and there the continuing strength of the Chinese economy, and the ongoing growth of the middle class, are positive indicators still.

The HEFCE, however, flags a looming demographic issue on the horizon in its report in noting, “Our analysis of the United Nations Population Division data shows that China’s 20-year-old population is expected to decline by 40% in the period from 2015 to 2020, compared with the period from 2005 to 2010.” Brookings points to underlying issues with falling fertility rates in the country and adds that, “In 2010, there were 116 million people aged 20 to 24; by 2020, the number will fall by 20% to 94 million. The size of the young population aged 20-24 will only be 67 million by 2030, less than 60% of the figure in 2010.”

The pool of university-aged students in China is expected to be notably smaller 15 years from now.

Other factors will be in play as well, including the strengthening of the country’s higher education system (which bears on the relative appeal of study at home as opposed to study abroad) and the continuing development of the Chinese economy. But it is reasonable to think that 10-15 years from now, Chinese outbound mobility may indeed operate at a different scale and with different characteristics than it does today.

The challenge of diversification is ever-present in international education, both with respect to achieving culturally diverse, global classrooms today and in terms of managing business risk for the future. Destinations and institutions that rely heavily on Chinese students today may especially want to sharpen their focus on that challenge to pursue greater diversification in international enrolment in the decade ahead.

Scenario planning is one exercise that might help you get started. This technique will enable you to map out alternative ways your recruitment environment could realistically develop. See our previous guide to help you finetune your current marketing strategies to ensure you’re prepared for the future… whatever it may look like.



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