Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
8th Feb 2023

More signs of rising demand for study abroad in China this year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Search trends on major Chinese search engines indicate that China’s border reopening is sparking a dramatic spike in interest for study abroad
  • The most popular destinations appear to be Australia and the UK
  • Rankings remain highly influential to study abroad decision-making in China, but safety and geo-political factors are also more important than in the past
  • Chinese students are considering a wider range of destinations than they were before the pandemic

Demand for study abroad is increasing quickly in China since the government re-opened the country’s borders after almost three years of closure due to COVID precautions. So far, Chinese students’ interest is especially focused on study options in Australia, the UK, and Canada.

Sinorbis, a leading marketing technology firm for higher education, scoured data from major Chinese search engines to discern which destination countries look most poised to benefit from rising Chinese outbound. The company looked at volumes of searches related to overseas study in the 30 days leading up to the border’s reopening compared with the same search parameters for the same timeframe the previous year. Sinorbis found:

  • 81% more searches for Canada
  • 138% more for the UK
  • 158% more for Australia

By contrast, there was a -16% year-over-year drop in the volume of searches for study in the US.

The Sinorbis analysis is particularly interesting given the Chinese government’s abrupt announcement last week that it would no longer certify online credentials earned from foreign institutions. The news means that Chinese students who have been studying online are currently scrambling to arrange travel – as quickly as possible – to the destination countries where their host institutions are located.

It also means that new students who might have been intending to study online will instead choose to travel abroad to earn their degree on a foreign campus. We can therefore expect a sudden and steep uptick – as early as the first half of 2023 – in the number of Chinese students choosing to study in-person in a destination country.

There is a great deal at stake in the next few months as foreign institutions with large numbers of Chinese students currently enrolled online will be challenged to welcome these students to campus (e.g., visas, accommodation, classroom capacity). Those that end up managing the transition relatively smoothly will gain a competitive edge among prospective students who will doubtlessly be watching from China.

US may face greater challenges

The Sinorbis analysis underlines:

  • Definite changes in leading destinations’ competitiveness in the Chinese market in the past few years;
  • The rapid rate at which a destination can become more – or less – popular.

For many years, the US was the preferred destination for Chinese students, largely due to its many highly ranked universities and the global prestige of a US degree. But former President Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and policies and the rise in racism in the US toward Chinese during the pandemic contributed to declines over the past two years in Chinese enrolments in US institutions.

SEVIS data shows a -29% decrease in the number of Chinese on active study visas in the US in January 2023 (262,992) compared with January 2020 (368,800).

Chinese students remain at least as interested as they were prior to the pandemic in world university rankings when deciding where to study abroad, which remains a competitive strength for the US, but clearly safety and tolerance have become much more important factors than in the past.

Xiaofeng Wan, an associate dean of admission and the coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College in the US, wrote recently in University World News that:

“Over the last few years, Chinese students have been drawn to many competitor countries of the US which have been more welcoming to them of late, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, as well as Asian destinations such as Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Japan and Singapore.”

He notes also that perceptions of the value of a US degree in China may be changing: “Escalating geopolitical tensions between the two global powers may also have greater ramifications when it comes to Chinese families’ willingness to send their children to the United States compared to what we are seeing today.” Families might be contemplating a possible future in which their government might discourage Chinese students from studying in the US if tensions escalate between the two countries.

In his article, Mr Wan cited Jingdong Xiao, the founder of international education research and assessment firm Ji School. Mr Xiao said:

“Before the pandemic, only 10%-20% of Chinese students would consider applying to colleges in multiple countries, but now roughly 70%-80% will. The United States is no longer the only destination for Chinese families to send their children.”

US educators are facing increased competition from:

  • The UK, where Chinese enrolments grew even in the pandemic thanks to the Graduate Route (post-study work rights) and the large number of highly ranked universities (17 in QS’s Top 100 for 2023, in second spot after the US's 27);
  • Australia, where in-study and post-study work rights are currently the most generous in the world and which is much closer to home for Chinese students than North America;
  • Canada, which has become a leading destination because of its work rights and value for money, and which is perceived to be more tolerant than the US;
  • Singapore and Japan, which are close to home and offer high-quality education.

Mr Wan believes that the new competitive landscape suggests that the US government should “ease restrictions on work authorisation and permanent residency” and that US institutions should “continue to express a welcoming stance, establish more transparent admissions and financial aid policies and provide adequate support for Chinese students once they are on campus.”

Rankings at least as influential as before

No matter the growing popularity of other destinations, however, highly ranked US universities will likely have no trouble benefiting from China’s opened borders. Earning a degree from a top-ranked university has become even more important for Chinese students. In 2022, the Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau of Shanghai began offering Chinese graduates from the world’s top 50 universities (e.g., Times Higher Education and Shanghai Ranking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities) — with full-time employment in the city a hukou [the hard-to-get household registration document]. Those from universities ranked 51-100 can apply for a hukou after paying social security for six months.

Inside Higher Ed explains the significance of that:

“[The hukou offers] direct benefits in purchasing an apartment and enrolling one’s children in prestigious local public schools. Given that more than 80 percent of all Chinese students return to China after their overseas education, according to China’s Ministry of Education, getting into a top-ranked college overseas now has one more added layer of significance back home.”

Interest in study abroad is growing

A study conducted by Ji School indicates that the graduating class of 2025 at international curriculum schools in China will grow by 42% over 2021. The prediction is based on a survey of 63 international curriculum schools in places such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong.

For additional background, please see:

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