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More Chinese Students Look to Asia for Higher Degrees

More mainland Chinese students are opting to study in Asia rather than the West, according to new figures. While the trend is driven in part by relatively lower costs, experts say high failure rates among those sitting entrance examinations for higher degrees at China’s universities are a key factor.

According to Qiang Zha, associate professor of education at York University, Canada, the main driver of Chinese students applying to universities in Asia is that Chinese students can get an advanced degree at an affordable price; a second reason is that “getting into graduate programmes in China is very competitive”.

Private education consultancy surveys in China put the proportion of applicants who fail the postgraduate exam and then apply to universities in Asia at between 40% (estimated by the agency Yangyang Study Abroad) and 66% (estimated by other lesser-known agencies).

According to official government figures, around three million test-takers failed to get places on postgraduate programmes last year as competition stiffened – many students retake the exam several times to improve their scores – and the number could rise to four million this year.

‘Studying nearby’

Choosing to stay closer to home is also a factor behind the rising interest in Asian study destinations among Chinese students.

The 2023 White Paper on Studying in China released by the New Oriental Education and Technology Group last month noted that the number of Chinese students in Southeast Asia is “increasing year on year”. It pointed to at least 100,000 Chinese students in Southeast Asia, noting that staying close to home had become important after the COVID-19 pandemic, while also highlighting relatively easy cultural adaptation in the region.

While the United States, United Kingdom and Canada were still the main countries of interest for Chinese students, ‘studying nearby’ has become a new trend for a bachelor degree, while those seeking a masters or doctoral degree have become more cautious about their choices since pandemic restrictions were lifted.

For example, the number of Chinese students studying in Thailand has doubled within five years, according to the White Paper which has been released annually for the past nine years.

While the United States remains the most favoured overseas study destination for undergraduates, chosen by 34% of respondents, this was a drop from 45% in 2019, according to the results of a survey conducted by Vision Overseas Consulting, a subsidiary of New Oriental, of over 9,550 Chinese students across 34 provincial regions.

The percentage of students going to the US for postgraduate studies dropped from 45% to 30% from 2019 to 2023, while those going to Hong Kong increased from 14% to 22%, and Singapore from 9% to 15%.

The percentage of students going to the UK and Canada remained relatively unchanged over the past five years, according to the White Paper.

In Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – the main destinations for studying abroad in Southeast Asia – Chinese students now account for the highest proportion of foreign students. Among them, the number of Chinese students studying in Malaysia and Thailand has exceeded 60% of foreign students in the respective countries.

Many are from China’s southern and border provinces, including rural areas where it is particularly difficult to compete in examinations like China’s graduate entrance exam.

Graduate entrance exam

Another China-based education group, Phoenix Education, found that many of those heading for Asian countries were applying for graduate studies after failing China’s postgraduate examinations.

China’s education ministry has approved additional postgraduate places in order to reduce the number of graduate jobseekers, with unemployment among graduates soaring to over 19% this year. However, some 4.57 million students registered for this year’s postgraduate exam compared to 3.7 million in 2021.

According to official Chinese government estimates, nearly one in five graduates opt to continue to postgraduate studies due to high graduate unemployment. However, according to the Ministry of Education, around 1.1 million of 4.5 million applicants were accepted into postgraduate studies in 2022 – only 24% of those who took the exam. The admission rate for 2023 is expected to drop to below 20% of test-takers.

Employer requirements

The White Paper said its survey shows that 51% of employers in China require graduates returning from abroad to have a masters degree or even a doctoral degree.

“With the continuous growth of highly educated talents, the threshold for recruiting foreign students by employers has also ‘increased’, the paper noted. While securing jobs may not be easy, survey data for 2023 showed that the starting salary for those with overseas qualifications was generally higher than for domestic graduates.

“China has credential or degree inflation. The jobs that used to be fine for high school graduates now require university degrees, while jobs for university graduates now require masters degrees,” Qiang told University World News. “Parents still want children to have a better starting point [in the job market], so Southeast Asian countries may be the optimal option where they can spend less money to get a degree.”

Asia’s ‘open door’ policy

Malaysia, for example, has a number of top 100 ranked universities, so can still be regarded as prestigious, he noted. “Many universities in Asia have an ‘open door’ policy and are easier to get into than the major Western universities,” he added.

Joshua Mok Ka-Ho, vice-president of Lingnan University, Hong Kong and an expert on higher education in China, also pointed to the ease of obtaining a visa to Southeast Asian countries. “In the last couple of years, North American – in particular, US institutions – have failed to issue visas for Chinese students. So, if you are a Chinese student, you may look to go to other places.”

Mok added: “The Chinese government also has a deliberate policy to reach out to Southeast Asia, strengthening the relationship, which is not only about trade and financial cooperation, but also people-to-people cultural interaction through the ASEAN countries,” referring to the Association of South East Asian Nations.

“Some ASEAN countries also welcome Chinese students after graduation. They can stay in the country if they are looking for a job,” Mok said.

Studying in Southeast Asia appears to be good for employment prospects, especially for graduates in business and tourism services. “Students go abroad for ‘gold plating’ their credentials,” said a tutor in an exam preparation agency in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.

Higher numbers of returnees

The 2022 Chinese Overseas Returnees Employment Survey Report released this year by recruitment website Zhaopin.com noted that the number of students returning to China from Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and other Asian countries to look for jobs has increased significantly. The number of fresh graduates from Malaysia looking to return to China will increase by 66% and from Singapore 37.7% compared to last year, it said.

According to data from Education Malaysia Global Services, the government-supported agency which promotes Malaysia as a study destination, applications from international students to study in Malaysia have increased by 31% compared to last year. Applications from Chinese students, the largest group, increased by 15% in 2022 compared to 2021, and were 43% of all applications in 2022.

Thailand’s Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation Ministry data shows 14,423 Chinese students were studying at Thai universities in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic, 70% of them in private universities. Chinese students made up around half of the foreign student population.

Thailand’s many international schools have become particularly popular with middle-class Chinese families as a springboard to overseas universities. In Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand the proportion of Chinese students in such schools has reached 40%.

However, education agents also note that as study abroad in Asia becomes more popular, application requirements for some institutions are also becoming more stringent. For example, Singapore has raised IELTS (English as a foreign language) requirements for some subjects as well as raising graduate admission scores.

Within Asia, Singapore and Hong Kong regularly feature in the top five destinations for Chinese students looking to study abroad for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, while Japan is also within the top five for doctoral studies. In 2019 just 10% of students chose these destinations.

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