QIN YIBO is half way through a science degree at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. But she has not been in the country since early 2020 when it closed its borders to prevent the spread of covid-19 (she was back in China at the time). Instead the university has arranged for Ms Qin and other stranded students in China to take up residence on campuses in their own country while they continue their studies remotely. Ms Qin has thought about transferring permanently to a Chinese university, but she still plans to return to New Zealand when it eases its border controls.
Ms Qin is relatively lucky. She has enjoyed seeing parts of her country that she had not visited previously. She spent the early months of this year at a university in Heilongjiang, a north-eastern province with bitter winters. Then, for a change of scenery, she moved to a campus in Fujian in the balmy south. Many thousands of Chinese students who had not yet enrolled at universities abroad when the pandemic began have found their plans upended by covid-related travel restrictions. Universities in the West have lived in fear that young Chinese, whose tuition fees are a lucrative source of revenue, would give up the dream of studying aboard.
There are good reasons for Western universities to be anxious. In 2019 around 700,000 Chinese headed abroad to study, more than three times the number a decade earlier. Most joined universities in English-speaking countries. Chinese students have had several reasons to reconsider their destinations. Foreign travel is difficult during a pandemic, and covid is still rife in Western countries. China has grown more unpopular in recent years, and some Chinese people in the West have suffered racist abuse. Anti-Western sentiment has also been rising in China, sometimes stoked by ruling-party propaganda. Many Chinese chafe at Westerners who blame China for its initial cover-up of covid, or who fail to give it credit for its subsequent success in curbing the virus.
But the pandemic’s impact on Chinese demand for study abroad has not been as bad as many had predicted. Before the crisis about 370,000 Chinese were studying at American universities, where they made up about a third of foreign students. In 2020 the number of Chinese enrolled, including those studying online from abroad, fell by around 15%. That is not the collapse that some in the industry had predicted, says Martin McFarlane of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The fall was caused almost entirely by a reduction in the number of foreign students starting new courses, which now seems to be rebounding. The Institute of International Education, an American NGO, says that this autumn the number of foreigners who began studying at American universities for the first time was only 9% lower than in 2019 (though about 35% were taking their classes online).
Australia has kept its borders shut to most foreign students throughout the pandemic. Even now, roughly half of them are studying online from outside the country, including about 65% of those from China. Yet, in Australia, total Chinese enrolment in higher education has fallen only 7%. Chinese students—nervous of the virus but keen to burnish their CVs with a Western degree—have proven more willing to put up with online learning than peers of other nationalities. Enrolments by Indians, for whom in-person classes are a high priority, have fallen by more than a third.
Britain’s universities have fared the best. The number of Chinese students was rising fast in the years leading up to the pandemic. This summer the country began allowing foreigners to remain longer after graduation to work or look for a job. Britain’s rules on post-study employment are now among the most permissive in the West. Since the pandemic began, Britain’s borders have stayed mostly open to foreign students, as long as they are willing to endure quarantine. In 2020 the number of Chinese accepted for undergraduate studies increased by 30%. This year the number of Chinese applying to start undergraduate courses rose again, by 17%.
In some countries, Chinese demand for tertiary education may yet falter. America is likely to remain the single most-popular destination for several more years. It is still widely regarded in China as having the largest number of great universities. But some Chinese have been put off studying in America by the xenophobic rhetoric of American officials during Donald Trump’s presidency, which fuelled perceptions of Chinese as potential spies. Such concerns may have abated a bit since Joe Biden took over. But surveys of Chinese considering study in America have shown that they view America’s handling of covid as the worst in the English-speaking world. Chinese students show growing interest in studying in Asia, says Simon Emmett of IDP, a multinational agency that helps universities recruit them. Asian countries are deemed to have a better record with covid.
In Australia there have been big falls in the number of Chinese students taking non-degree courses such as English-language lessons, says Peter Hurley of Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, a think-tank in Melbourne. Students often use these courses as preparation for study at Australian universities. This may suggest that Chinese enrolment at universities in Australia will keep on falling, at least for a while, even after the country reopens.
In China there is another indication of unsettled demand. A large share of the Chinese who leave the country to study commit to doing so at the end of their compulsory education, when they are about 15. At that stage they opt out of preparation for China’s university-entrance exam and instead join senior high schools that offer curriculums focused on study abroad. Francis Miller, a college counsellor at one such school in the city of Xi’an, says the number of 15-year-olds entering its international programme fell sharply in 2020, before recovering somewhat this year. He thinks other, similar schools are having a harder time recruiting students. Xiaofeng Wan, who manages international admissions at Amherst College in America, notes that last year more Chinese children than usual elected to sit the entrance exam for senior secondary schools. Pupils aiming to study abroad sometimes skip this.
There are other, long-term, challenges. The number of Chinese of university age is no longer growing. Amid economic headwinds, fewer families will have the resources to splash out on foreign tuition. Meanwhile, China’s own universities are improving. About 47m people are enrolled in tertiary education there, up from around 6m in 1998. Before the pandemic an expert at the British Council, a state-funded cultural organisation, estimated that the number of Chinese seeking a foreign degree could start falling in 2023.
China does not appear keen to deter study abroad. During the pandemic Chinese officials have supported foreign universities’ efforts to help Chinese students continue their studies online, says Brett Berquist of the University of Auckland. The Chinese government has stopped issuing passports to most people, but has given them to those planning to study abroad.
Officials still want clever young Chinese to get the best training in science, medicine and engineering, wherever in the world it can be found. After all, about 80% of such students return to China after graduating. For many of them, China’s allure ultimately trumps the West’s. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The West’s allure”