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26th Jun 2013

Chinese demand for overseas education remains strong despite worries about jobs

"If I want to enter a university like Tsinghua or Peking, I have to pay too much attention to the gaokao (the college entrance exam). I'd like to have more fun and diverse experiences at high school, which I can talk about for the rest of my life.”

—Yang Dongdong, a 16-year-old boy in a top class in a Chongqing (Chinese school), who is electing to go abroad for college. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, the number of Chinese students who studied abroad increased by 17.7% from 2011 to 2012; a total of 399,600 Chinese students went to study abroad last year. Contrast this with the fact that in Beijing, 72,736 students signed up for the gaokao in 2013 versus 126,000 in 2006. And even those who do elect to take the gaokao are increasingly deciding to go abroad: by some estimates, 60% of the best-performing gaokao students end up going abroad, and many of them are choosing overseas masters and PhDs instead of working or starting a business in China. The US is certainly benefitting from Chinese students’ study abroad ambitions: according the IIE’s Open Doors 2012 report, Chinese enrolments went up by 23% in 2011/12 (and by 31% at the undergraduate level) over the previous year. Many other countries are working hard to increase their share of Chinese students. China Daily reports that the University of Sydney is now accepting the gaokao as an application credential. Especially alluring to overseas higher education institutions is the trend of Chinese students becoming more self-funded. According to China Daily, the Chinese Ministry of Education reports that about 380,000 of the nearly 400,000 Chinese students overseas in 2012 were self-sponsored.

But what about jobs upon return?

Education News

has just reported the results of a poll conducted by the online job hunting site 51job.com that asked Shanghai parents whether they will send their children to study abroad after completing high school or college:

“Of the 607 parents who took part in the survey, 76.8% responded that they plan to send their children to study overseas even if the cost of tuition and living expenses may reach 1 million yuan (US $163,111).”

But with all the excitement there is also fear. Epoch Times has written of a new demographic in China: the “ant tribe”:

“This group contains over three million people, all of whom have plenty of college education but very little income, according to a study published in the journal Asian Social Science. They live crammed into tiny quarters, often with only 10 square metres of space per person, the study reports.”

One might ask, with the Chinese economy still vigorous (if evolving), how can such a phenomenon as the ant tribe be growing? Says Winston Wenyan Ma, a World Economic Forum blogger:

“… China’s existing economic model … is heavy on trade (import/export) and investment (infrastructure) yet slow to produce white-collar jobs.”

And, some local education experts are saying that Chinese vocational schools are producing graduates that are faring at least as well, if not better, than many Chinese returning from study abroad. For example, according to the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, 97.93% of last year's 39,834 students who graduated from the city’s 86 vocational schools had found a job upon graduation. Moreover, half of them earn an average monthly salary of 3,000 - 4,000 yuan in their first year. That said, many China watchers have opined that this is a transition time for China’s economy: that it must move from a heavy manufacturing emphasis to one more in line with a “knowledge economy” model, as ICEF Monitor reported in May. Such a transition would, by extension, create more jobs for “white-collar” educated Chinese students returning from study abroad.

Faith in the future: Chinese sending high-school-aged children

Despite skepticism among some Chinese education experts about whether a foreign education - particularly one gained in the US – gives Chinese students a competitive edge, Chinese parents are for now convinced that it does. And they’re sending their kids abroad at younger ages of late: based on data from the US Department of Homeland Security, the New York Times recently reported that 638 Chinese students attended high school in New York City in 2012, up from 114 only five years earlier. Big cities like New York appeal to the luxury impulse among some Chinese, as evidenced by this paragraph on private school-attending Chinese students from the New York Times article:

“When the students are not in class, they attend Broadway shows and Cirque du Soleil with their houseparents, shop for designer sneakers in SoHo, get manicures at Wall Street spas and eat waffles and cheese-omelet brunches cooked for them every Sunday by one of the school’s chefs.”

For more on the draw of elite education brands to Chinese students and parents, please see an ICEF Monitor article from earlier this year.

Opportunities for smaller, more niche, or more vocational schools

With growing Chinese interest in overseas education coupled with fears about cost versus job benefits, there may be a real opportunity for institutions beyond the “elite” leagues to attract Chinese students. China Daily reports that “many Chinese students studying in the United States are attending “two-year community colleges to save money and then transferring to four-year universities to get their bachelor's degrees.” This arrangement is known as the 2+2 degree option, and it seems to be getting more popular. China Daily notes as an example that: “At Shoreline Community College, 9 miles north of Seattle - which began developing international education programmes 30 years ago and where more than 98% of international students continue on to earn a four-year degree based on recent data - the number of Chinese students increased by 58% last year (65 by the spring of 2012 and 103 by the spring of 2013).” As the Chinese economy matures and the middle class grows, there may well be more chances for schools of all sizes and focus to appeal to different Chinese student demographics.

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