CHINA: Overseas education - Changes and policies

The 2009 Sino-US Joint Statement declared that the United States would encourage more Americans to study in China, by sending 100,000 students in the coming four years. It is mentioned in the joint statement that the United States sends students to China on a large scale. Compared with the then 20,000 US students in China, 100,000 would equal a breakthrough. Actually, there is a continuous increase in the number of students studying in China, and overseas education in China has attracted extensive attention.

Rapid development

China has become the major country that sends students abroad: 178,900 students in 2008, followed by 229,300 students in 2009. Meanwhile, overseas education in China has a developed rapidly, despite its smaller scale than sending students abroad.

Indeed, China has ranked among a few countries whose international students have grown dramatically.

Between 2001 and 2008, the average annual growth rate was over 20%, and the annual net growth reached 30,000. The year 2008 was a landmark, when international students first exceeded 200,000 and increased by 14.32% over the previous year. The number of international students in 2008 was 180 times that of 1978 (1,200), 38 times that of 1988 (5,835), and five times that of 1998 (43,084).

Overseas education in China has also become more diversified. International students enrolled in non-formal programmes usually take Chinese-language training or short-term study, not for the purpose of earning a degree. The proportion of international students enrolled in formal programmes has increased yearly, while the proportion enrolled in non-formal programmes has declined.

In 2004, among all 110,844 international students, the percentage of students in non-formal programmes accounted for 71.5%, but this dropped to 64.2 percent in 2008, when the total number was 223,499. Meanwhile, the proportion of students in formal programmes increased from 28.5% in 2004 to 35.8% in 2008.

Institutions enrolling international students have also been increasing. There were 23 academic institutions with international students in 1979, 55 in 1984, more than 330 in 1997, 363 in 2001 and 420 in 2004. In 2008, institutions' numbers grew to 592.

Besides regular institutions of higher education, many research institutes and other types of educational institutions admit international students, such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the China Civil Aviation Management Institute. Private institutions, such as Beijing Geely University, also enrol international students.

Significance of growth

Overseas education helps China develop partnerships with other countries. From 1950 to 2000, China trained more than 360,000 international students, who later became experts in science and technology, education, diplomacy and administration in their sending countries.

Among students who studied in China, a few served as prime ministers, some worked in ministerial positions, hundreds were appointed professor or associate professor, and thousands were engaged in cultural, economic and trade cooperation with China.

Briefly, overseas education in China has contributed to developing and consolidating China's political, diplomatic, economic and trade cooperation with the outside world, as well as to conducting cultural, educational and personnel exchanges.

Overseas education strengthens China's national 'soft power'. International students become 'bridges' to enhance friendship among people across countries. A majority of international students became professionals, promoting mutual understanding and friendship between Chinese and foreign youth. A large number of international students understand China well.

Overseas education in China has enhanced soft power through training international students who develop positive attitudes toward China, disseminate Chinese language and culture, expand the country's international influence, enhance its image and improve its management level, among other aspects.

Further, overseas education promotes the construction of world-class universities. China's top universities are the main institutions recruiting international students. These students bring new and different ideas, activate the academic atmosphere, enrich cultural diversity and expand the internationalisation of universities. Overseas education encourages China's universities to improve quality and enhance their international reputation.

Overseas education also leads to economic gains. Based on the estimate of a task force of Peking University, long-term international students create a direct annual income in China of about US$0.96 billion to US$1.15 billion, while short-term students contribute US$0.09 billion. The two types of students create a direct annual income in China of about US$1.05 billion to US$1.24 billion.

Besides direct income, other spending includes transport fees and rental charges, as well as consumption spurred by scholarships. Moreover, overseas education in China drives economic growth in some related sectors and creates job opportunities.

Remaining problems

Despite progress, however, there are problems in the further development of overseas education in China.

The academic level of overseas education is relatively low. In 2008, among the 80,005 international students in formal programmes, undergraduate students accounted for 81.1%. Graduate students made up a comparatively low proportion, only 6.4% of total international students.

There is a major gap in the level between China and some developed countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France. For example, almost half of international students in the United States enrol in graduate education programmes.

Regarding fields of study, a high proportion of international students major in humanities and social sciences: 80%. In 2008, international students studying Chinese language and literature accounted for 55.7% followed by other majors such as Western medicine, economics, business, science, traditional Chinese medicine and engineering.

The largest number of international students come from the top10 sending countries, eight of them in Asia. Furthermore, international students in China mainly came from South Korea, the United States, Japan, India and Vietnam.

China's current regulations and policies cannot adapt to the development of overseas education. The Regulations on Higher Education Institutions Admitting International Students, issued in 2000, are quite outdated. Institutional autonomy for recruiting international students is inadequate.

New policies

For further development of overseas education in China, the government is implementing new policies. The scale of international students will expand. According to the Outline of China's National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020), China will become the biggest hosting country in Asia and a major world destination for international students.

Maintaining an annual growth rate of 7%, international student numbers will reach 500,000 by 2020. The Chinese government and universities are making efforts to create conditions for enhancing the proportion of international students in campuses.

The scale and magnitude of government scholarship will be strengthened. China will build a scholarship framework, in which central government plays a major role, and expand the scale and magnitude of scholarships gradually.

The government plans to skew scholarships toward key universities, disciplines, and programmes, and balance their distribution among sending countries. Local governments, higher education institutions and enterprises are being encouraged to establish various forms of scholarships. A foundation programme system will be established.

China is perfecting the Chinese Language Proficiency Test examination system, to improve international students' Chinese-language ability before departure so that they will be better prepared for study in China. The government encourages universities that have language policies to use English, fully or in part, as a teaching medium to foreign students. China has constructed a programme system for overseas undergraduate students, to guarantee appropriate study.

A favourable policy environment is emerging. The government was planning to amend the Regulations on Higher Education Institutions Admitting International Students to explicitly stipulate the responsibilities, rights and obligations of students and institutions.

The Ministry of Education has been modifying and perfecting other policies, so as to normalise administration and education for international students, and ensure enrolment, visa application, study, graduation and other steps connect well.


China has become the major country sending students abroad - 178,900 students in 2008, followed by 229,300 students in 2009. From 1950 to 2000, China trained more than 360,000 international students, who later became experts in science and technology, education, diplomacy and administration in their sending countries.

The making and implementation of new policies cannot succeed without the initiative of universities that are critical stakeholders of overseas education. In order to attract more qualified international students and improve the quality of overseas education in China, the government and universities are working together to build a policy alliance.

* Kai Jiang is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education, Peking University, where Xueni Ma is a masters student.

* This is an edited version of "Overseas Education in China - Changing landscape and policies", which first appeared in International Higher Education, Issue 63, Spring 2011.