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[Analytics] Will Chinese students study abroad post-COVID-19?

Students communicate during breaks in classroom at the Primary School Affiliated to the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing on June 1, 2020. [Photo by Zhu Xingxin/China Daily]. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Western universities are confronting the looming challenge that students from mainland China may no longer desire to study abroad after COVID-19. Bingqin Li, Qian Fang, Li Sun specially for the East Asia Forum.

To continue attracting Chinese and other international students, host universities will need to show that they care about the wellbeing of the students. But if student numbers stay low post-COVID-19, they will have to adapt and implement different strategies.

Over the past two decades, the number of students leaving mainland China to study abroad increased from 39,000 in 2000 to 662,100 in 2018. Chinese students form a large share of international students in many countries including the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. A British Council survey of 11,000 Chinese students over March–April 2020 found that 13 per cent were unlikely to return, 22 per cent were likely to cancel their study plans and 39 per cent were undecided.

The rapid increase of Chinese students studying abroad is a result of the rising middle class in China — sending children to study overseas is now framed as a lifestyle choice of middle-class families. Having an enriching life experience has already topped or equalled education quality as the most important reason for students to study abroad. Online learning can at best be a short-term solution during the pandemic because it does not offer the cultural and life experience that Chinese families are looking for.

But this does not mean that online learning is completely ineffective. It can supplement face-to-face teaching and potentially open new markets in skills training for mature students who cannot travel abroad.

The real risk for face-to-face teaching is whether the size of the Chinese middle-class will continue to grow post-COVID-19. The Chinese economy is clearly suffering from the lockdown and recovery will take time. Still, in May 2020 several top advisors raised the goal of doubling the size of China’s middle-income group over the next 15 years to 800 million people. Currently, students studying overseas mainly come from families earning more than AU$60,000 (US$41,100) per year. But the fastest growing group is the AU$20,000–AU$60,000 (US$13,700–US$41,100) income group.

There are still several more uncertainties. The Chinese population is aging quickly, and the net increase of families in the middle-income bracket does not necessarily mean that their capacity to send children abroad will increase as fast.

But the most serious challenge may be the Chinese government’s recent warning against travelling to Australia. The recommendation is a response to COVID-19 and allegedly increased racism. The pandemic certainly caused many problems for international students. But even before the pandemic, the number of students travelling to Australia was decreasing — often attributed to growing competition from universities in China. A more recent survey shows that even with the tension between governments, Australia is still the first choice for Chinese students. However, the UK has replaced the US as most popular among those students who use an agent.

International universities still retain the advantage in offering unique life experiences, but students will encounter difficulties when experiencing a new life abroad that can be overlooked. International students must deal with the cultural shock of studying in a foreign country and figure out how to set up a new life in a very short time. Most undergraduates have never left home before they travel abroad. Postgraduate students who lived on campus dormitories before they left China may struggle to follow conversations in English. When they seek support after facing a hostile reception, they are often ignored.

This narrative is frequently politicised by the media, causing further anxiety for Chinese students. Local students in the same age group — even without these constant challenges — often need emotional support, but counselling and wellbeing services do not always effectively accommodate for language and cultural differences.

It is high time for universities to recognise that as educators, the way they handle teaching and support may affect the wellbeing and the future of all students. As hosts of international students, universities must take the lead to coordinate and monitor support services. University staff members need to be trained and supported to provide such services as a part of their internationalisation strategies. The better prepared universities will be able to attract more international students.

Universities also need to communicate to wider society the extensive benefits that international education brings host countries. It is not about university staff getting higher pay and more funding, but an engine for broader economic growth. The resulting job creation ripples far beyond campuses. International students also subsidise the education of local students. Enhancing awareness of these benefits may help reduce public anxiety and increase domestic acceptance of international students.

Bingqin Li is Professor and Director of the Chinese Social Policy Program at the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney.

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