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CHINA
Ambitious drive for foreign students is paying off

China’s ambitious drive to attract more foreign students is beginning to pay off with some 397,635 students from overseas studying in China last year, according to official figures released earlier this year. This is in line with the government’s target of achieving an overall international student population of 350,000 by 2015.

Although there has been a slowdown in numbers since 2014, the number of foreign students in China has been growing on average 10% year-on-year since 2006.

A report entitled China as a Destination: Trends to date by student.com, released last week, using official figures from the China Association for International Education or CAFSA, notes that a “record-breaking” number of international students were in China in 2015, describing the country as the “third most popular” destination country for overseas students after the United States and the United Kingdom, ahead of Canada.

However, there may be still some way to go for China to become as popular as major Western countries in attracting overseas students. The student.com report suggests that at current growth rates China could overtake the UK as a destination for international students. It compares the number of foreign students in China in 2015 with the 336,500 foreign students in Canada in 2014.

But Canada has seen a surge in international student numbers in recent years, with immigration department figures for December 2015 showing at least 20,000 more than the 2014 figure, and is more likely than China to overtake the UK as the second-largest destination for foreign students after the US, experts say.

Foreign student numbers to the UK are likely to slow as British Prime Minister Theresa May this month hinted at a tightening of student visa rules as part of a plan to curb overall immigration in the wake of the Brexit vote in June.

Degree level courses

While China points to improving the quality of its universities and their rise in global rankings as one of the reasons for the increase in overseas student numbers, China is still unable to match US, UK and Canadian degrees’ global recognition. Less than half the international students in China – 46% – were enrolled in degree level courses, though this was up from just a third of international students a decade ago, according to the student.com report.

Ministry of Education figures from April show that a total of 184,800 international students were in China to study for an academic degree, a 12.4% increase on the previous year. But most are on short courses including exchanges and language programmes.

The Asian Development Bank has in the past highlighted China’s inability to attract more degree-level students as a weakness of its plans.

Nonetheless, China has been making huge efforts to provide scholarships, improve facilities and accommodation for international students, and teach more courses in English in order to attract more students from overseas.

In particular, joint degrees where a year is spent in China, and other joint courses in collaboration with overseas institutions, have helped boost the number of foreign students on degree-level courses in China.

In part reflecting the growth of collaborations, joint ventures, study centres and joint research laboratories, the number of students in China from the US has almost doubled from 11,784 to around 22,000 over the past decade. China has also been able to attract significant numbers of students from India and Pakistan to its medical degrees, with numbers tripling over the past decade.

Scholarships

Scholarships have been a key means to attract foreign students, particularly from developing countries, with the number of scholarships rising from around 8,500 in 2006 to 40,600 last year, according to Ministry of Education figures.

“The vast majority of Chinese government scholarships – 90% of them – are granted to students studying for a degree, which is approximately half of the 397,635 international students in 2015,” said Zhou Dong, CEO of China's University and College Admission System or CUCAS, the official application portal for international students.

In 2015, 40% of all international students new to China received government sponsorship, he said. This is around 10% of all foreign students in China.

Other funding is provided by universities in China and abroad, by China’s Confucius Institutes, particularly for language study, and foreign governments and organisations including the US Schwarzman Scholarships at Tsinghua University in Beijing this year, and the Yenching Scholars programme at Peking University launched last year.

But government scholarships are just one among a raft of measures deployed by the Chinese government to boost the number of overseas students.

“In the past two years, the Chinese government has actively increased the availability of scholarships, made it possible for foreign students to take on part-time work, simplified visa processes and standardised the assessment of international degrees. All these are important measures to promote education for international students in China,” Zhou Dong said.

Main growth

South Korea still provides the largest group of international students to China, rising from 57,500 in 2006 to 66,672 last year, followed by Thailand and Russia. But the number of Japanese students has dropped by 23% in the same period, from 18,363 to around 14,000, mainly due to tensions in bilateral relations over geopolitical issues, including the East China Sea.

There has also been high growth in enrolment of foreign students at postgraduate and doctorate levels, “suggesting that China is becoming a more attractive research environment”, the student.com report said.

Ministry of Education figures showed that there were almost 40,000 overseas graduate students and some 14,367 doctoral students in China last year.

China’s stated target for 2020 is to attract some 500,000 international students to its shores, as part of the country’s National Plan for Medium- and Long-term Education Reform and Development, published in 2010.

The growth in numbers will go part of the way in compensating for the huge brain drain and drain of resources to overseas universities, as some 523,700 Chinese students went abroad to study in 2015 alone. Over a million Chinese students are estimated to be studying overseas at present.

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