The world’s leading study abroad market registered another year of strong growth in 2014. The number of Chinese students abroad was up sharply over 2013, and the enrolment of overseas students in China grew as well, albeit not as quickly. Of particular note, the trend towards younger Chinese students going abroad continued through 2014 with strong growth indicators for secondary school enrolment abroad.
According to the latest data from China’s Ministry of Education, 459,800 Chinese students went abroad in 2014, an 11.1% increase over the year before. Of those, 21,300 were sponsored by public funding sources, 15,500 were employer-funded, and 423,000 – or 92% – were self-funded.
Ministry figures also indicate that Chinese students are returning to China to pursue their careers in greater numbers than before. 364,800 students returned to China in 2014, an increase of 3.2% over 2013. Since China first opened up to international study in 1978, a total of 3.5 million Chinese have studied abroad. The total return rate for the period from 1978 to 2014 stands at 74.5%.
The leading overseas destinations for Chinese students in 2014, according to ministry officials, were the US, the UK, Australia, Japan, and France.
The trend to younger students
We first began to report on a trend toward Chinese students going abroad at a younger age in 2013, and the data at that point indicated a pronounced shift to younger student demographics leading up to 2010. As of 2010, nearly 20% of all Chinese overseas students held an academic certificate below the high school level. That number increased to roughly 23% by 2011 and hit a new peak in 2014 when almost 30% of all Chinese students abroad were enrolled at the secondary school level.
The US, Australia, and Canada are some of the leading destinations for Chinese high school students going abroad. The number of Chinese students enrolled in Australian high schools increased 20% from 2013 to 2014, and is poised to increase further with a decision by Australian schools last year to admit overseas students for middle school studies (grades 7 to 9) for the first time.
Meanwhile, the number of Chinese applicants registered for this year’s Secondary School Admission Test, an entrance examination for US secondary schools, is up 30% over last year. This larger pool of students taking the entrance examination reflects a trend that stretches back over the last 10 years. The Chinese education portal Eol.cn reports that whereas as few as 65 Chinese students were enrolled in American high schools in 2005, that number had increased to nearly 24,000 as of 2013.
Continued growth in offshore middle school and high school enrolment is being driven both by the ongoing strength of the Chinese economy – and the corresponding expansion of the country’s middle class – and by demand among Chinese families for an alternative to the rigorous rote-based learning of the domestic system.
Alex Zou is the CEO of the Vancouver Public Education Alliance (VPEA), an education agency that assists high school-age Chinese students (and younger). He recently told the South China Morning Post that his client base had doubled in each of the past few years, and that education abroad was increasingly in reach for Chinese families. “High school students we serve only need to pay about CDN$24,000 (about RMB117,000) a year, including tuition and board, which can easily be covered by many Chinese families,” said Mr Zou.
Coming back the other way
These trends illustrate that China unquestionably remains a critical source of internationally mobile students. As we have reported in recent years, however, the country is also increasingly establishing itself as an important international study destination. China has a goal to host 500,000 students by 2020 and the latest government figures indicate it is tracking well toward that goal.
There were 292,611 international students in China in 2011, and the Ministry of Education reports that that number increased 29% to reach 377,054 in 2014 (with 5.77% growth over 2013 alone). This dramatic growth has been aided in part by an expansion of Chinese government scholarships for foreign students and roughly 10% of 2014’s total foreign enrolment in China was supported by publicly funded aid programmes.
The Ministry adds that 44% of the foreign students in China in 2014 (164,394 students in total) were engaged in degree studies, including 47,990 at the postgraduate and doctoral levels.
The leading source countries for international students in China include South Korea, the United States, Thailand, Japan, and Russia. Enrolment for the US has shown some signs of flattening out in 2014 (overall, student numbers from the Americas were down 2.45% compared to 2013), but China reported strong gains for African enrolment last year (41,677 students in 2014, a 24.93% increase over 2013) as well as from important regional markets such as India and Pakistan.
While student aid is certainly a factor in this growth, many students, including those from significant source countries across Asia and Africa, are attracted by China’s rapidly developing economy and growing profile on the world stage. James Mwita, a 30-year-old student from Kenya, reflects this perspective in his recent comments to the China Daily, “China has a system that is working, and its political system is efficient. Its economic and social developments are impressive, and I hope my country can emulate them.”