Recent statistics concerning flows of students from China and Chinese views about migration raise some interesting questions concerning the present and future of Chinese higher education—particularly at the elite levels. Record numbers of Chinese continue to study abroad—270,000 are self-funded and (only) about 25 percent are returning to China, surprising in the context of the economic problems of the West and China’s booming economy (figures come from Willy Lam of the Jamestown Foundation).
Almost 100,000 Chinese students study in the United States. At the same time, China is now host to 240,000 international students, approaching the number of Chinese students going abroad. Most are from Asia, but a growing number are from Western countries, including 18,000 from the United States. Information is not available what percentage of these students are pursuing a degree versus staying for a year or semester, or where they are studying. To encourage more incoming students, the Chinese government has announced that it will offer 20,000 scholarships to international students. China is increasingly an important player not only in sending students abroad—the truth is that if the “big two” sending countries, China and India, severely cut back on their numbers, the international higher education apparatus in most main receiving countries would be in crisis—but also in receiving students from abroad.
In addition to students who leave to study outside of China, Willy Lam notes that many Chinese entrepreneurs and professionals prefer to pursue careers abroad; he asserts that, they prefer the more transparent and predictable societal environment they find outside of China.
What does this say about higher education? It shows that despite major investment and the clear improvement in quality at China’s top universities, there are problems in building an academic environment that will retain the “best and brightest” in China and also lure those who have gone abroad, home. Low salaries, indeed among the world’s lowest academic salaries, some issues relating to information access, “inbreeding” (hiring one’s own graduates), questions relating to academic freedom in some fields, and lots of guanxi (personal influence) are serious impediments to creating a “world-class” academic culture compatible with the impressive academic infrastructure that is now available at China’s top universities. Continuing reports about plagiarism and other kinds of academic corruption (by no means limited to China) present additional challenges.
Despite these challenges and impediments, China is quickly becoming an academic superpower—studies have noted the dramatic increases in published articles in key academic journals from Chinese academics, rapid increases in patents and other measures of scientific productivity. Yet as noted here, significant problems remain.