Decline in the mobility of Chinese students: it is only temporary



In the face of some bleak predictions regarding outbound mobility of Chinese students, we predict that Chinese students’ willingness to study abroad will remain strong due to strong “push” factors in China including economic factors, competitive system , the value placed on intercultural learning and , most importantly, Chinese educational culture. The current drop in numbers is temporary, primarily due to COVID concerns.

One of the main reasons behind the gloomy forecasts for Chinese educational mobility is the expected slow growth of the Chinese economy over the next decade, if not the possibility of an immediate collapse.

Geopolitical tensions and the trade war with the United States do not help. However, Chinese pessimists have been around for a long time and they have been proven wrong so far. The Chinese system has proven to be resilient and adaptable, perhaps more so than the Western system.

Of course, no country can grow its GDP at an annual rate of 10% forever, not even the Chinese, but even a small positive growth each year would be very good news for international education.

Given the broad base of today’s Chinese economy, a growing middle class, all endowed with the habit of saving (by a minimum of 30% of household income) and a network extended family of grandparents, uncles and aunts all ready to chip in, there is continued stability in the surge of outbound Chinese student mobility.

Education: a value par excellence

There has been a surge in the provision of higher education over the past two decades in China, shifting the Chinese higher education system from an elitist system to a mass system. The current enrollment rate is over 50%.

Quality has also improved considerably, thanks to huge national investments in a select group of universities. More and more Chinese universities are entering the top rankings year by year, and China’s research output has outnumbered that of the United States since 2019.

However, Chinese higher education has remained very competitive for Chinese students.

One of the core values ​​in China revolves around education. Every parent dreams of the best possible educational situations for their youngsters, regardless of the personal or financial costs.

Stories of the extremes that students and families will endure, striving for good results Gaokao (university entrance exam), are ubiquitous in conversations about Chinese education. The reason behind the continued pressure is that the tiered post-secondary system is largely overwhelmed by student demand. Every year, many talented students are unable to enter top Chinese universities, who then have to “settle down” or “look elsewhere”.

Moreover, less talented students still have the same motivation for a university education in a highly reputable institution, but cannot hope to compete with their peers at the top. For those who are better off, there are much easier options overseas.

The flattening of population growth in China is often seen as a negative push factor, but those who suffer the most are more likely to be Chinese universities at the domestic lower level rather than overseas universities.

Intercultural sense

Of course, not all Chinese international students land in an Ivy League school, but consider what other attractive forms of learning come with an overseas education opportunity.

A compromise in international ranking can, to some extent, be alleviated by the experience and skills of an intercultural education. Good judgment is a deep-rooted Chinese cultural pillar, and as the world shrinks and businesses expand in rapidly changing global markets, even a less developed sense of judgment says international experience is beneficial.

Since 2001, China’s economy has been firmly integrated into the global trading system, and despite the Chinese government’s call to ease the academic burden on students, English is still a school subject perceived to be as important as Chinese and math. , and after-school tutoring continues.

The idea of ​​mastering English as a global language through an English language education abroad remains very appealing, even if a foreign university is not in the same league as Oxford or Harvard.

A little historical perspective

Even without such an educational motivation, the Chinese population has always been an extremely mobile group, contributing to the early construction and development of much of North America, still evident in the Chinatowns of every major city in the American continent.

Even the Chinese “head tax” in Canada and the “Chinese exclusion” legislation in the history of the United States have not stopped their interest in migration.

Many members of diaspora communities have ties to their ancestral country and in doing so contribute to the flow of information about current opportunities and potential spaces for development.

After all, China is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s population crammed into less than 8% of the world’s arable land. As the Chinese proverb says, “A good opportunity is not to be missed”.

Chinese people have always sought better living, learning and working opportunities elsewhere and everywhere. We would really witness a brutal reversal of this great historical trend if Chinese students really stopped looking abroad!

The pandemic

The current decline in the number of Chinese students is almost the exclusive result of the pandemic, or the success of Chinese discourse in dealing with it. The goal of zero cases with strict dynamic lockdown measures has indeed helped China avoid great loss of life in previous and more severe waves.

But the logic of protecting lives at the cost of everything else, well propagated among the Chinese population, can create psychological fear vis-à-vis countries that have adopted more lax policies.

Evidenced by the sharp increase in applications in Hong Kong and other neighboring regions. The current pandemic may need to take hold more before Chinese students return in greater numbers. This setback, viewed from a longer-term perspective, is likely to be very temporary.

A final note

Chinese mobility in international education has played a vital role in post-secondary institutions around the world for decades. Although the number of students may wax and wane, we can expect Chinese students in our classrooms for generations to come.

China’s education-oriented culture, seeking the best possible opportunities anywhere in the world, will remain stable. A Western degree, and the associated advantages of language and intercultural skills, will be considered desirable by Chinese students for a long time to come.

Gavin Palmer works at the University of Alberta International, responsible for international student programming. E-mail: [email protected] Wei Liu also works at the University of Alberta International, Canada, primarily responsible for the global academic leadership development program. E-mail: [email protected]


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