They offer three things that Western rivals can’t
Gone are the days when China just sent students to English-speaking countries in the West. China now ranks fourth among the most popular 'receiving' countries in the world, with students from South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan and India dominating the intake.
China's zero-Covid policy left many students to languish in uncertainty for the past three years, the government's recent policy reversal means international student numbers may bounce back.
Students' tales from the pandemic period reveal that online study - with all its technical and time-zone issues - suspended scholarships and closed laboratories not only delayed graduation but also did immense harm to their mental health and well-being.
Yet, as Twitter's #takeUsBackToChina campaign demonstrates, international students can't wait to get back. So why has China become the dream destination for many?
In 2010, China introduced a programme that aimed to attract and enrol 500,000 international students a year by 2020. Three years later, as a component of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) global trade strategy, China made further moves to embed international students into its agenda.
BRI was initiated to strengthen economic collaboration with 65 countries, and attracting and training international students was seen as a key way of enhancing China's position as a global knowledge producer. International students from BRI countries got government and institutional scholarships, as well as private sponsorships. This is in stark contrast to some Western countries, where astronomical international student fees have become a way of subsidising domestic students.
The effort seems to have paid off. Pre-pandemic figures show that China hosted 492,185 international students in 2020.
Why study in China?
A few years ago I conducted interviews with international students studying at top-tier Chinese universities to understand what they saw as the key benefits of a Chinese education. The findings boiled down to three main reasons: employment prospects, learning Mandarin and developing cultural 'know-how'.
Students said bright employment prospects were the principal benefit. In contrast to graduates of Australian or Canadian universities, for instance, where foreign students face discrimination from employers and may have difficulty finding work that aligns with their qualifications, students felt that China's rise as a superpower provided exciting opportunities.
They also felt more confident that they could get jobs in China that might not exist in their home countries. They thought that the growth of China's economy brought more opportunities and higher salaries, and they felt confident that China needed highly skilled migrants like them to maintain that growth.
The second key benefit identified was learning Mandarin. Many international students saw it as an important language for business and trade between their home countries and China. Understanding Mandarin and studying in China, international students can learn how to fit in with Chinese culture, facilitating future business dealings with Chinese companies.
The final benefit that students saw was the ability to develop the knowledge, skills and experience they needed for future career development. Given China's rapid economic development, international students were very interested in learning the business tricks of the trade, economic policies, and management and investment skills.
For these students, China's rapid development is something to emulate. They want to learn as much as they can so that they can transfer that knowledge, contributing to the economic growth of their home countries. While some students held ambitions of working for Chinese companies or the government sector, many also expected to return to their previous, home-country jobs with newly acquired skills.
Can China recover from 'zero Covid'?
International students studying in China have experienced great hardships from the zero-Covid policy. Even so there is little to suggest that China's status as a hub for students from BRI countries will change.
The costs of a Western education are prohibitive for many students from poorer countries. While the looming threat of a global recession and the slowing of China's economic growth may dampen students' hopes of the opportunities that study in in the country offers, a Western education remains simply out of reach for many.
With meaningful discussion on re-opening and re-promoting international education in China, the government can build on positive links with countries in the BRI, developing international students' knowledge and skills in areas that will benefit both China and home countries. This will keep China attractive to international students who seek to benefit from the experience of the Chinese higher education system, business and culture.
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