Decline in Chinese student mobility: It’s only temporary

Against some gloomy future predictions about Chinese students’ outbound mobility, we forecast that Chinese students’ drive to study overseas will stay strong due to strong ‘push’ factors in China, including economic factors, a competitive system, the value placed on intercultural learning and, more importantly, the Chinese educational culture. The current drop in numbers is temporary, mainly due to concerns over COVID.

One important reason behind the gloomy predictions for Chinese educational mobility is the forecasted slow growth in the Chinese economy over the next decade, if not the possibility of an immediate bust.

Geopolitical tensions and the trade war with the United States do not help. However, Chinese doomsayers have been around for a long time and they have been proven wrong so far. The Chinese system has shown itself to be resilient and adaptable, perhaps more so than the Western system.

Of course, no country can grow its GDP at an annual rate of 10% forever, not even the Chinese, but even a small positive growth every year would be very good news for international education.

Given the large base of the Chinese economy today, an ever-increasing middle class, all equipped with the habit of saving (by a minimum of 30% of household income) and an extended family network of grandparents, uncles and aunts all willing to chip in, there is continued stability in the push for Chinese students’ outbound mobility.

Education: A quintessential value

There has been a vast increase in higher education provision in the past two decades in China, turning the Chinese higher education system from an elitist one to a mass one. The current enrolment rate is over 50%.

The quality has also been immensely improved, with huge national investment in a select pool of universities. More Chinese universities enter top league tables year on year and the research output from China has outnumbered that from the US since 2019.

However, Chinese higher education has stayed very competitive for Chinese students.

One of the quintessential values in China revolves around education. Every parent dreams of the best possible educational situations for their young people, no matter the personal or financial costs.

Stories of the extremes students and families will endure, endeavouring to score well on their Gaokao (university entrance exam), are ubiquitous in Chinese education conversations. The reason behind the continuing pressure is that the tiered post-secondary system is vastly overwhelmed by student demand. Yearly, many talented students are unable to gain entry into the top tier of Chinese universities, who then have to ‘settle’ or ‘look elsewhere’.

Furthermore, less talented students still hold the same motivation for a university education from a highly reputable institution but can’t hope to compete with their peers at the top. For those who are better off, there are much easier options abroad.

The flattening of demographic growth in China is often seen as a negative push factor, but those who suffer most from that are more likely to be Chinese universities at the national bottom tier rather than universities overseas.

Intercultural acumen

Of course, not all Chinese international students land in an Ivy League school, but let us consider what other attractive forms of learning accompany an education abroad opportunity.

A trade-off in international ranking can, in some part, be assuaged by the experience and competencies of an intercultural education. Sound judgement is a deeply entrenched Chinese cultural pillar and, as the world shrinks and businesses expand in fast-moving world markets, even a less developed sense of judgement says international experience is beneficial.

Since 2001, the Chinese economy has been brought firmly into the world trade system and, despite the Chinese government’s call to lighten students’ academic burden, English is still a school subject that is perceived to be as important as Chinese and maths, and after-school tutorials still continue.

The idea of mastering English as a world language through English-medium instruction overseas remains very attractive, even if an overseas university is not in the same league as Oxford or Harvard.

A little historical perspective

Even without such educational motivation, the Chinese population has always been an extremely mobile group, contributing to the early building and development of much of North America, still evident in the Chinatowns in every major city on the American continent.

Even the Chinese ‘Head Tax’ in Canada and the ‘Chinese Exclusion’ legislation in US history did not stop their interest in migration.

Many in the diasporic communities have ties to their ancestral country and, in doing so, contribute to the flow of information home regarding current opportunities and potential spaces to develop.

After all, China holds close to a quarter of the world’s population crowded onto less than 8% of the world’s arable land. As the Chinese saying goes: “A good opportunity is not to be missed.”

The Chinese have always looked for better living, learning and work opportunities elsewhere and everywhere. We would really be witnessing a sudden turn in this major historical trend if Chinese students really stopped looking abroad!

The pandemic

The current dip in Chinese student numbers is almost an exclusive result of the pandemic, or the success of the Chinese discourse in dealing with it. The zero case target with strict dynamic lockdown measures has indeed helped China to avoid a big loss of lives during the earlier and more serious waves.

But the rationale of protecting lives at the price of all else, well propagated among the Chinese population, can create a psychological fear about countries that have adopted more relaxed policies.

This is shown by the sharp increase of applications to Hong Kong and other nearby regions. The current pandemic might need to further settle before Chinese students return in larger numbers again. This setback, seen from a longer perspective, is likely to be very temporary.

A final note

Chinese mobility when it comes to international education has played a vital role in post-secondary institutions worldwide for decades. Though the number of students may wax and wane, we can expect Chinese students in our classrooms for generations to come.

The Chinese education-first culture, pursuing the best possible opportunities anywhere in the world, will remain stable. A Western degree, and the accompanying benefits of language and intercultural competences, will be considered desirable by Chinese students for a long time to come.

Gavin Palmer works at University of Alberta International, in charge of international student programming. E-mail: Wei Liu also works at University of Alberta International, Canada, mainly responsible for the Global Academic Leadership Development Program. E-mail: