Ten years ago, there was a trickle of post-doctorate and postgraduate Chinese leaving their home shores for foreign universities. Rising numbers of undergraduates and PhD and MBA students have since turned the trickle into a flood. Increasing numbers are also buying into language schools and secondary education in the English-speaking countries of the world.
The lure of higher education overseas is strong. Language schools and foundation courses help school students improve their English and adapt to the host country in anticipation of a university or college placement. Demand from China is high and rising. For example, according to the US embassy in China, there are more than 50,000 Mainland Chinese students and scholars in the US, a figure matched only by the Japanese and comprising 10 percent of the total foreign intake.
Quality of education
There are obvious incentives for going overseas. First, there is the quality of higher education in the primary destinations of the US, UK, Canada and Australia, and the fact that the language of instruction is English. There is then the option of staying on to work overseas or the possibility of returning to China armed with a qualification from a highly regarded university.
Add to this, the prestige associated with sending a son or daughter overseas. At best, this may involve a qualification at the leading names in higher education, such as Harvard or Oxford. In time, it may increasingly come to include high schools, secondary schools or private schools, such as Eton in the UK. Status also encompasses the cost of studying abroad, as it may point to a family's wealth and achievements.
The demand for foreign education was built during the 1990s and continues to grow into 2000. In higher education, foreign students are an important source of income, especially in the UK where the state continues to withdraw subsidies from the grant made to institutions educating local students; foreign students pay their way, which means money in the bank for hard-pressed colleges. Mainland China is an increasingly promising source of fee revenue. Students from China are also known for performing well in exams, which helps maintain an institution's image and reputation.
There are, however, capacity constraints, most markedly at the level of pre-university schooling. Central to this is the problem of balance, as schools try to ensure that their student intake is not compromised in favour a single grouping or nationality. The language school sector is more elastic, expanding to meet demand and well able to distribute itself widely geographically.
There is also the question of China's own educational regime – under-16s are discouraged from opting out of the state system, which could jeopardise their chances for a leave place at a Chinese university. Competition for places in higher education in China is fierce. A parent thinking about sending a talented child overseas must weigh this against the risk to the child's prospects at home. The need to complete one's secondary schooling in China, as well as the financial burden of funding a child through school and university abroad, probably accounts for the surge in applications for overseas studies from the 16-to-18-year old category. At this age, most children will have completed their high school education in China.
Getting an exact fix on the numbers of Mainland Chinese studying at various levels in English-speaking countries is not easy. Visas point the way. In the UK, some 2,840 Chinese nationals were given leave to enter the UK as students in 1990, boosted by the numbers fleeing the country after the 1989 crackdown against student protesters. The figure dropped year-on-year to a low of 2,010 in 1993, rising steadily thereafter to 11,000 in 1999. Corresponding figures for entry clearance given to students from China were 2,810 in 1996, 1,920 in 1997 and 5,470 in 1998. Of the 11,000 admitted last year, 9,270 attended courses lasting at least six months and 1,930 were aged under 18.
Australia granted 3,530 student visas to Mainland Chinese in the financial year 1998 to 1999, up 49 percent on the previous year. China accounted for 5.3 percent of Australia's total grant of student visas to all nationalities in 1998-99, compared with 3.7 percent in the previous year.
When it comes to national policy, most effort is focused on higher education, as opposed to secondary education and English as a foreign language (EFL). Policy deliberations centre on universities and higher education, little on secondary education and EFL.
Governments are seen to throw their weight behind higher education. The US State Department, for example, recognises the political, social and economic contribution that an international mix brings to a campus, not least for the US$8.3bn its 500,000 students contribute to the sector. In 1998, America voiced fears of intensifying competition for overseas students from English-speaking rivals, which it hoped to counter through active marketing by government agencies abroad.
At the level of a younger intake, policy initiatives have a lower profile. EFL is regarded as part of the corporate sector, required to pay its own way. Private schools, at least in the UK, tend to recruit through trade fairs in China, and are under-represented in government agency initiatives.
In sum, the marketing effort from institutions of higher education, with which government collaborates, are more sophisticated and better integrated than at pre-university levels. The US Department of State, however, is known to want to develop Sino-US schools' links, targeting 15-to-18-year-olds for short exchanges over the next few years. This would provide a new entry point for young students, and a potential spin-off in longer-term education.
The English-speaking countries are in competition on image and on price for foreign students. Other factors intervene at lower levels. A choice of secondary school or language school may depend on cost, but also on precedent (whether a school is known to a family contact) or location (near to a resident family contact).
The upward trend in student numbers at all levels can be expected to rise more steeply in future. Factors that will play an important role include strong economic growth in China, rising incomes in a growing pool of the wealthy, and the concentration of resources on the single child. There is also the continuing draw of overseas universities and colleges of higher education. Private, pre-university education currently lags higher education, and there is scope for further penetration.
Study-regimes in the West are more relaxed than China, and study disciplines a cultural world apart. The pressure of reorientation, however, adds its own strains on the individual student thrown in to a Western institution. Some may see the experience as liberating or enlightening; others may find it disorientating and stressful.
If China succeeds in turning its own system around, to encourage greater individual development and creativity, loosening the competitive rigidities of the traditional regime, this gap may narrow.
This has some high level support. Prime minister Zhu Rongji gave the reform of China's approach to education – an end to cramming and moderation on homework assignments – his blessing in his address to the National People's Congress in March.