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Looking at Chinese market trends for 2014

In today’s ICEF Monitor post, we draw on a new report from Education New Zealand (ENZ) as a foundation for a 2014 update on trends in the key Chinese market.

The China Trends Report: Education developments in 2013 (and what to look out for in 2014) takes a look at the year past and the year ahead, identifying topline trends for the world’s number one source market for international students. Here are some important highlights from the report and other key findings.

China’s outbound student numbers continue to rise

ENZ reports that 339,600 Chinese students studied abroad in 2012, an increase of 17% over the previous year. In 2013, it is estimated that this figure rose to 450,000. Furthermore, China continues to dominate the foreign student market in the US, Canada, and Australia.

The US remains the number one destination for outbound Chinese students, with the International Institute of Education (IIE) estimating that Chinese enrolments in US institutions numbered 235,597 in the 2012/13 academic year, an increase of 21.4% over 2011/12. Undergraduate enrolments in particular rose by 26%. Almost 29% of all international students in the US are Chinese, a phenomenon that Rajika Bhandari, IIE’s deputy vice president has described as “the largest concentration of students from any one place of origin that the US has ever seen.”

Similarly, Canada saw enrolments from China increase by 20% in 2012, as compared to 2011, and Chinese students represent 30% of its total international student enrolment.

In Australia, over 40% of the country’s more than 230,000 international higher education enrolments at the end of 2013 were from China. Chinese students also make up 21% of those doing graduate coursework in Australia, and are the largest cohort of graduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) researchers with 24% of enrolments. One exception to the rising numbers is Chinese student visa applications in Australia, which were flat in 2013. In contrast, they were up in the UK that same year, increasing by 8% over 2012.

Greater numbers of younger Chinese students are studying abroad, but demand for graduate studies may be softening

With regard to demographic developments, there is increasing evidence of burgeoning demand among younger Chinese students for an overseas education. On this topic, the ENZ report notes that:

“76,400 high school and younger students studied abroad in 2010 – 19.8% of all students studying abroad in that year. In 2011, the number of high school students alone (i.e., not including younger students) had increased to 76,800. High school students accounted for 22.6% of the total number of students studying abroad in 2011.”

As we previously wrote in ICEF Monitor, however, the demand for graduate studies may be softening in China. While offers of admission from US graduate schools to Chinese students grew for the eighth consecutive year in 2013 – increasing by 5% – this was against a backdrop of a 3% decline in the number of Chinese applicants. According to Education New Zealand, this trend may nevertheless indicate that Chinese students “have become more discerning when making an application.”

The economic slowdown is affecting employment prospects for graduates and academic offerings in China

Last year saw a record number of 7 million university graduates in China – almost 200,000 more than in 2012 – but the concurrent slowdown of China’s economy has resulted in more competition for fewer jobs. By April of 2013, only 35% of prospective Chinese college graduates had found employment, and approximately 700,000 graduates from 2012 were still unemployed in 2013. ENZ reports that this has impacted both China’s “Ant Tribes” and “Sea Turtles”:

“Those shut out of China’s job market have been marginalised on the outskirts of China’s cities. These so-called Ant Tribes – communities of young, educated Chinese living in poverty – have proliferated.

And while a foreign degree once guaranteed a good job with a premium wage, this is no longer the case. Sea Turtles – Chinese who have returned from training overseas – are finding it tough on their return. A number who have returned are now looking west again.”

Graduate students have been among the hardest hit, with employment rates dropping consistently since 2005. In a related development, some 40,000 fewer candidates took the 2014 national graduate school entrance examination as compared to last year. Marking the first drop in five years, this decrease has been attributed to the end of tuition-free graduate courses. In response to the challenging job market at home, the government is pressuring Chinese institutions to offer academic programmes that are more likely to lead to employment – just one of several changes in the air.

Changes to China’s education system are underway and more are on the horizon

In late 2013, China’s Third Party Plenum agreed to significant education reforms. While many details are yet to be released, it is anticipated that China’s national higher education entrance examination – the gaokaowill reduce the importance placed on English, and increase the number of tests a student can take in a given year. As the ENZ report notes, the gaokao has been previously criticised “for defining a student’s life based on their performance on a single day.”

Other suggested reforms include “a reduction in the bureaucratic control of education by central government as well as the stepped-up promotion of public-private partnerships in education.” As part of China’s higher education transformation drive, the government has already responded positively to the arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and is exporting its own online course offerings.

The number of branch campuses is growing – in China and offshore

In 2013, the number of international branch campuses almost doubled in China, increasing from 10 to 17. International post-secondary institutions such as Duke University, Bryant University and University College Dublin are all opening branches across China in partnership with various Chinese education institutions. While tapping into the demand for an international education among Chinese students who cannot – or prefer not to – travel overseas to study, the proliferation of foreign branch campuses is also expected to attract more international students to China.

For China, however, these new types of institutional cooperations are closely intertwined with its desire to drive up research and innovation. ENZ reports that the Suzhou Industrial Park near Shanghai is becoming “an international education hub,” with campuses being opened in partnership with Liverpool University, the National University of Singapore, and Australia’s Monash University, among others. For western nations, such partnerships and university-led research collaborations can offer much needed access to alternate sources of research funding, and serve as an entryway to other forms of economic and business collaboration with China.

But China is also looking to expand its education footprint abroad. Chinese post-secondary institutions are making moves to establish their own campuses offshore in locales such as Malaysia, London, and Laos.

China is increasingly a destination of choice for foreign students

As the importance of China’s economy and the quality of its universities increases, so does the country’s appeal as an education destination for international students. According to ENZ, China’s inbound student numbers rose to 328,000 in 2013, and the government is set on welcoming 500,000 international students by 2020.

That target will likely be fueled by western initiatives that aspire to develop more “China-savvy citizens” – people who speak the language and know the country. In the US, for example, the IIE has set a target of having 100,000 American students studying in China by 2014 and, in the UK, the British Council’s Generation UK campaign wants to see 15,000 British students gain study or work experience in China by 2016.

University World News additionally reports that China’s top universities – most of which deliver significant programmes in English – are seeing increasing numbers of overseas students from non-Asian countries. But there has also been “a substantial increase” in the number of international students pursuing degree programmes delivered in Chinese.

What’s on the horizon in 2014?

To conclude, we’ll leave you with highlights from ENZ’s forecasts for 2014:

More students. More Chinese students are expected to go abroad in 2014, despite the slowing economy.

More competition – in China. Expect more competition from international branch and joint campuses in China as well as from large investment firms seeking to take advantage of demand for education products and services. Countries and institutions alike will need to find ways to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace; niche and specialist marketing will figure prominently.

More competition – from China. As China seeks to position itself as an education destination, expect to see more recruitment activity by Chinese institutions in neighbouring Asian countries (and also further afield).

More focus on employment. Institutions that can show clear career progressions for their students will be better placed than most.

More regulatory change. As the Third Party Plenum reforms start rolling out during 2014, expect changes to the regulatory environment, particularly in relation to joint programmes approved by local and central government authorities. We may also see changes as the government seeks to ‘normalise’ the education agent industry.

More in-country delivery. As China’s education system matures, more reciprocity in international partnerships is being sought, from the government on down.

Western China: the next frontier. As doing business in China becomes ever more competitive, expect more providers to look to broaden their recruitment catchment.”

Trend-watchers can look for additional China-related reports from ENZ and ICEF Monitor throughout 2014.

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