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The number of Chinese students pursuing degrees abroad will likely “peak within five years, and then enter a track of stagnation or even slight decline,” a study says.

The Times Higher Education logo, with a red T, a purple H and a blue E.The largest sending country for overseas learners, China has experienced robust growth in recent decades, fueling demand for university degrees in countries such as the U.S. and Britain, with some institutions leaning heavily on international student fees. But Western countries could soon see demand from Chinese students drop, despite a trend toward easing border restrictions.

Although student flows have recovered somewhat since COVID-19 severely limited international travel, analysts are pessimistic about the likelihood of student mobility figures continuing to climb much further.

“Even with the rebounds seen from the easing of restrictions, these enrollment numbers are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels,” write Claudia Wang and Monique Zhang, co-authors of the study and analysts at the consultancy Oliver Wyman.

“Higher geopolitical tensions and the diversions of strategies to continue to contain the pandemic will only further stall the recovery of the outflow of students. And all of this is compounded by the shrinking tertiary population and the declining willingness to go abroad.”

Even before the pandemic put a stop to international travel, there were signs that Chinese student flows were tapering off, with the number of degree seekers peaking and beginning to decline at U.S. universities in 2015 and at Australian universities in 2017, the authors note.

At the same time, the appeal of education at home has increased, with China doubling down on its domestic offerings.

“We observe ever-growing headwind from policy makers,” Wang told Times Higher Education.

In recent years, China has updated its school curriculum to “emphasize educational sovereignty” and has limited further expansion of international schools, which “used to provide the reservoir” of prospective outbound students, she said. The Chinese government has also strengthened control over passport applications, international admission exams and study abroad agencies, Wang said.

The authors based their predictions on a combination of sources, including the most recent figures from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; stakeholder interviews; visa center data; and parent surveys on study abroad sentiment. They suggested that China could follow in the vein of other Asian countries that have strengthened their education systems and where the premium on foreign degrees has waned.

“It’s more likely for the number [of outgoing students] to drop if that country has significantly improved accessibility and quality of higher education,” said Wang, adding that this happened in Japan and later in South Korea.

Yet despite an expected leveling off in outbound Chinese student flows, the authors expected overall student mobility to rise slightly. Other countries, such as India and Vietnam, would continue to “maintain momentum” in sending more students abroad, they predicted.

“We believe there won’t be a sudden collapse of outflow number, as there are still kids in the pipeline of preparing for studying abroad,” said Wang.

Nevertheless, she said, where China is concerned, all the signs point to a scenario in which “this engine will be cooling down.”

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