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Checking in on China market trends

China remains the world’s leading outbound education market for international students. But what trends are shaping the market today and for the foreseeable future?

To answer this question, we turned to Lisa Zhang of JJL Overseas Education. She recently sat down with us in Beijing to discuss current trends in China’s outbound education market.

JJL is one of the largest student recruitment agencies in China, serving close to 45,000 clients this year alone. It is found in 30 locations throughout China and has established relationships with thousands of institutions in 23 countries. JJL’s agents work closely with Chinese families and students to facilitate the study abroad process, offering “one-stop” service in-country, in their host country, and when they return home.

As Ms Zhang explains in our interview, she is seeing three trends emerge in the Chinese market:

  • Chinese students are choosing non-traditional degree courses. Historically, they have gravitated toward business degree programmes of study, but are now increasingly selecting alternative programmes: arts, engineering, communications, and education, among others.
  • Increasing numbers of younger students are studying abroad. While the majority of outbound Chinese students are still pursuing tertiary education, a growing number are high-school age and younger.
  • The outbound education market is growing at a steady pace and it is expected to increase – 20% per year, according to statistics published by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Younger students mean different services

Ms Zhang’s observations about younger students echo the findings of recent reports that indicate a significant drop in the average age of Chinese students abroad. As we previously wrote in ICEF Monitor:

“The Center for China and Globalization (CCG), a non-profit think tank, reports that in 2010, nearly 20% of all Chinese overseas students held an academic certificate below the high school level, and that that number had increased to nearly 23% by 2011.”

Increasing numbers of younger students are taking major standardised exams, such as the TOEFL and SAT exams, and are enrolling in full academic programmes – most notably in the UK and the US.

As well, more Chinese youngsters are starting their foreign education at the junior high level, and there has been dramatic growth in US summer programmes for Chinese students, which attracted an estimated 100,000 students this year. For Chinese youths enrolled in these preparatory programmes and in secondary schools abroad, the goal is often to gain admission to a recognised college or university overseas.

But the burgeoning demand among younger Chinese students for a foreign education is also giving rise to another trend, says Ms Zhang:

“We see that some parents or some families are leaving the country, as well, to go to their child’s host destination.”

With students as young as five years old studying abroad – such as one JJL student enrolled in kindergarten in Singapore – more Chinese parents are accompanying their children internationally to look after their needs. This means there is a growing demand – and opportunity – to provide services to parents who travel with their children.

But Ms Zhang also notes that it is important for foreign education institutions to offer programmes that help international students – regardless of their age – integrate into the local student culture. Agents initially help students settle in to their host countries, but throughout the course of their studies, those students increasingly rely on their respective schools’ resources to assist them linguistically, academically, and culturally.

Signs of weakening Chinese demand for graduate studies abroad

In the midst of this surge in younger outbound Chinese students, there are early signs that the demand for graduate studies is softening in China. As the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) reported earlier this year, the number of Chinese students entering graduate schools in the US increased by only 5% in 2013, marking the end of seven consecutive years of double-digit growth.

The possible reasons behind the decrease are varied, ranging from reductions in funding for foreign students at US universities to the high unemployment rate of Chinese post-graduates. Regardless of the rationale, the slowdown is of concern to US educators, particularly given that steady growth from China has offset weak domestic enrolments. However, the Council notes that China continues to be the largest source of international graduate students, representing 34% of all international graduate students in US.

China is turning to digital education

In addition to outbound education trends, another key development is also shaping the larger education market in China.

With over 400 million students – including almost 30 million enrolled in tertiary institutions – China has struggled for years to meet its domestic demand for education. However, the country is now looking to digital education to increase access to education. Spending on both public and private digital education is rapidly expanding, as the British Council’s Jeremy Chan noted in a recent blog post:

“The size of the potential digital education market in China was estimated to be £7.4 billion in 2012, which represented a 22% increase from the year before.”

The Chinese government has responded positively to the arrival of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) by encouraging the import of quality courses to China – free of politically sensitive content – and the export of its best courses worldwide. China’s top universities recently unveiled their first MOOCs on the Coursera platform. Tsinghua University also launched its own platform called XuetangX, to host local MOOCs, as well as courses on the edX platform of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Commenting on the effect of these developments, Professor Huang Ronghuai, associate dean of the faculty of education at Beijing Normal University, told University World News:

“It is recognised that international online learning will have a significant impact on higher education, and it may transform the function and structure of [China’s] universities.”

At the primary and secondary level, China has ambitious plans to create a universal digital learning environment, and is promising to provide broadband connectivity to all K-12 classrooms by 2020.

Digital education: concerns and opportunities

However, digital education is not without its detractors. MOOCs don’t currently count toward degree credits, and some academics are calling for a government policy that would change that. Others have raised concerns about the importation of “foreign ideas” via MOOCs, quality control and cheating, as well as potential job losses at some universities.

China also needs to increase Internet connectivity nationwide if it wants to make online education widely available and avoid exacerbating its existing digital divide. Currently, 80% of China’s urban students have Internet access at home, whereas only 2% of its rural students can make that claim.

Nevertheless, Chinese government policy has been generally encouraging toward digital education and foreign investment in this market. As Mr Chan suggests:

“For most outside investors, the most promising opportunities remain at the margins of China’s tightly regulated public education system, namely in rising demand for home schooling, after-school tutoring, vocational training and preschool education. There are also considerable opportunities for foreign investors in the publishing and provision of e-books, digital note-taking and other cloud-based services, as well as education software development for electronic hardware.”

Although competition in the digital education market is expected to be fierce among domestic and international providers – and the threat of changing government policy remains a risk – current trends continue to indicate strong performance for the Chinese market going forward.

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