International student numbers near half a million

The number of foreign students studying at universities on the Chinese mainland is closing in on the half a million mark, with 489,200 students in 2017, according to the latest figures from the ministry of education in Beijing released last week.

However, it is still not enough to close the gap with the numbers of Chinese students studying abroad, which exceeded 600,000 for the first time, at 608,400 – a year on year increase of almost 12%, in separate statistics that the ministry revealed at the end of March.

The figure for the number of inbound students to China includes those enrolled in secondary education, not just higher education, unlike other countries which produce the two statistics separately.

According to the ministry, foreigners enrolled in secondary education in China account for almost a third of the total. Analysts say this is due to the expansion of international schools in China, which in turn attracts foreign nationals, including Chinese returning from abroad with foreign passports – China has launched a number of schemes to attract back highly-qualified Chinese from abroad, including priority for registration in popular cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

Nonetheless, compared to last year, growth in foreign student numbers in both secondary and higher education in China was over 10% for the second consecutive year, according to the ministry, fuelled in part by higher growth in the number of foreigners choosing China for a masters or PhD degree “across a wide range of disciplines”, and scholarships granted by the Chinese government that “are playing an increasingly important role in attracting foreign students”, the ministry said.

The number of foreign graduate and doctoral students, at 75,800, increased 18.62% compared to 2016, according to the ministry, while the number of undergraduate degree students, which make up half of all foreign students in China, grew by 15% year on year.

Scholarships bring in students

In 2017, 58,600 foreign students from 180 countries were awarded Chinese government scholarships, accounting for around 12% of the total. Some 88% of the recipients were degree students (51,600), but the number of scholarships for graduates or doctoral students increased 20% compared to 2016 to benefit around 40,800 foreign postgraduate students.

Scholarships for students from ‘Belt and Road’ countries have shown the most growth, with students from these countries now accounting for around two-thirds of all international students in China.

The Chinese government has been offering 10,000 scholarships each year for students from the ‘Belt and Road’ countries, leading to a large rise in student numbers from countries such as Pakistan and a number of countries in Africa.

The top 10 source countries in 2017 were South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Laos – with Pakistan, a key recipient of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure and trade funding, now ranked third in terms of sending countries compared to fourth in 2016 and ninth in 2015.

Although the number of South Korean students in China may have dropped back after the period covered by the statistics released last week, due to geopolitical tensions, a trend in recent years for a growing number of students to come from India attracted by cheaper medical degrees has held up.

The number of self-funded students was 430,600 or 88% of all overseas students.

China has set a target to reach 500,000 foreign students by 2020 while luring overseas talent is a major strategic goal of the country’s leadership in its bid to turn China from a manufacturing hub to an ‘innovation economy’.

More Chinese students going abroad

Among Chinese students going abroad in 2017, some 227,400 were doctoral and post-doctoral researchers, an increase of around 15% compared to the previous year, according to the ministry’s latest figures.

The ministry noted that the destination of Chinese students studying abroad is “still relatively concentrated”, with most going to European and American universities, but it noted that the ‘Belt and Road’ countries “have become new growth points”.

The number of Chinese students studying abroad along the ‘One Belt, One Road’ was 66,100, an increase of 15.7% over the previous year, which exceeded the overall growth rate of overseas students studying abroad.