Spike in local tuition costs: Are international fees next?

Steep increases in university tuition fees of up to 54% for local students – the first fee increase in two decades in some regions – have given rise to speculation that fees for international students could also be increased as China grapples with economic slowdown.

Multiple provinces in China have settled on fee rises for the 2023-24 academic year which begins in September, with increases ranging from 54% in Shanghai to under 15% in some poorer provinces, according to an official announcement on 26 May.

The increases for local students – the first in two decades in some regions – have given rise to speculation that fees for international students could also be substantially increased. A team of education experts led by Liu Jin, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, has proposed tuition fee levels of CNY100,000 (US$14,300) – five times the present level – for international students.

Currently China’s public universities, including prestigious institutions such as Tsinghua University and Peking University in Beijing and Fudan University in Shanghai, charge a standard fee of CNY20,000 (US$2,800) for international students, which, like domestic student fees, has not changed for over 20 years.

The announcement of substantial rises in domestic fees, comes amid widespread disruption in the Chinese economy. The higher education sector is also recovering from China’s Zero-COVID policies, which saw classes move online owing to strict lockdowns, which were only lifted in December 2022.

With the resumption of face-to-face teaching, Shanghai’s East China University of Science and Technology announced that tuition fees will rise 54% to CNY7,700 per academic year for incoming students majoring in science, engineering and physical education, and a 30% rise to CNY6,500 per academic year for liberal arts students.

Shanghai Electric Power University’s tuition fees for science and engineering have risen by 40% to CNY7,000 per academic year, while tuition fees for management, economics and literature majors have risen by 30% from the same period last year to CNY6,500 per academic year, according to a notice on the university’s website.

On 17 April the Shanghai Municipal Government held a hearing on “mechanisms for setting tuition fees for public universities and colleges” to coordinate the rationale for rises. According to official reports, Shanghai plans to adjust average tuition fees for public colleges and universities from CNY5,420 per student per year to CNY7,215 from September 2023 – a rise of some 33% and the first tuition fee rise in Shanghai for two decades.

In 1996 the Ministry of Education, together with the Finance Ministry, set up an ‘education charges’ hearing system for decisions on fee levels. Some provinces have already held hearings and announced hikes in 2020 and 2021.

Outside of Shanghai, announced rises in other areas have been less steep. After an 18 January hearing, Sichuan’s Provincial Development and Reform Commission announced that tuition fees would be CNY4,800 per year for liberal arts undergraduate degrees, CNY5,200 for science and engineering – an increase of CNY1,100 – with increases of CNY800 for medical science and an increase of CNY1,700 for non-clinical medicine.

Colleges and universities in Shaanxi, Anhui, Liaoning, Henan, Shandong and some other provinces and cities also plan to increase tuition fees by 20%-35%. Fee hikes for some subjects were announced in 2021.

Beijing, which is closely watched around the country, has not yet announced increases.

Most provinces are varying fees by discipline. For example, in Jiangsu, tuition fees for degrees in literature, history and sports are up by 15% while science and engineering increased by 23% and medicine by 47%.

Calculated risk

“Raising fees is in line with Xi Jinping’s call for China’s universities to aim to become world class. At a time of economic slowdown, this is the only way to implement Xi’s vision when there are less resources for local governments to increase investment in universities,” an academic in Guangdong province told University World News on condition of anonymity. “The percentage rise for tuition fees will be related to provincial education funding levels during this slowdown,” he said.

China’s Ministry of Education and regional education authorities have kept fees low for many years, seeing higher education affordability as an important social issue and higher education as an important route to social mobility.

Given the public sensitivity around higher education fees, the announcements came as a surprise, according to Joshua Mok Ka-Ho, vice-president of Lingnan University, Hong Kong and an expert on China’s higher education.

But the authorities appear to have taken a calculated risk aimed at balancing likely discontent over fee rises against financial considerations, he said.

Fee rises are “understandable, because local governments used to be financially able to fund universities themselves or with matching (funding) from the central government, but the financial capacity of local governments has significantly reduced because of COVID-19, the trade (downturn) and because of overall economic conditions in China,” Mok told University World News.

At the provincial or municipal level, governments which provide university funding “have drained their resources by supporting different measures to manage the public health crisis,” he added.

Unique conditions

Mok noted that some provinces were in dire straits, unable to pay civil servants for several months, for example – a fact widely reported in Chinese media. “I think these are very unique conditions in China,” he said.

“Over the last 20 years the government held the fee levels [static], but the government’s investment in higher education was huge, transforming university capacity, [putting in] advanced infrastructure and paying staff – all this was without fee increases, and universities were heavily subsidised by local and central government, but now financial conditions have changed tremendously,” Mok said.

“Different local governments may have a different fee rise ceiling. They are also [setting] some kind of balance between the fee rise and affordability for students. That is why Shanghai can go up further, because people there are more resource-rich compared to the other regions.”

However, with continued high demand for higher education in China, the authorities believe if students from disadvantaged families struggle to access higher education, it could have an impact on social stability.

In mid-March, Jilin province, a relatively poorer province in China’s north east, set an upper limit, capping tuition fee rises at 15%, with fee rises for some subjects of regional importance capped at 10%. On average, tuition fees will be about CNY6,000 to CNY7,000 – about CNY1,000 up on last year.

Qiang Zha, associate professor at the Faculty of Education at York University, Canada, noted that top tier universities in China were still receiving increases in funding from the government last year which were higher than in previous years. “So the timing of the announcement is important. It could point to the financial situation [in China].”

It is still unclear if fee hikes will be sudden or gradual increases, Qiang noted. In many cases, tuition fee rises will not be across-the-board but confined to a few subject areas.

“Across-the-board rises must be approved by the Prices Administration and public hearings are part of this process,” Qiang told University World News. But he said compared to China’s consumer price index over several years, the 30-54% rises are “within an acceptable range”.

“Put against the first increase in 22 years, then even in Shanghai, spread over 20 years, it is still a modest increase.”

Although inflation has cooled in the past year to under 1%, some officials have said inflation has hit official highs of around 8-9% in recent years.

Qiang suggested that universities might offset costs with subsidy schemes for those from very poor family backgrounds.

According to official figures, around 600,000 students (around 3% of enrolled students) every year receive some sort of financial aid for higher education.

Fees for international students

On social media, netizens in China have pointed to the increased likelihood that fees for foreign students will be raised, although it is far from clear whether such fees will rise five-fold as professor Liu Jin’s team recommended.

The ‘reasonable’ increase in tuition charges, as it was described in the team’s proposal, from about CNY20,000 to CNY110,000 per year, which was published in the Chinese-language Journal of Higher Education Management, would allow Chinese universities to provide better educational services and compete with other top institutions around the world to attract higher-quality international students, Liu’s group said.

But Liu’s team also pointed to potential drawbacks to raising international fees. Too high an increase could limit the number of international students choosing to study in China and result in a fall in the number of talented individuals contributing to China’s economy and society, it said.

The team suggested the government adopt a ‘price discrimination’ policy, offering grants or subsidies to students with high talent and potential. This would help to ensure overseas students can access higher education in China, regardless of their financial situation. At the same time, charging most students a price that matches the cost of their education could make sure resources were allocated efficiently and that the government was not bearing an undue financial burden, the researchers said.

According to York University’s Qiang, China now has more international students from the global South. “And they are taking up a lot of public resources, [such as] almost-free housing, and scholarships,” he said, noting that scholarships for foreign students tend to be more generous than for local students.

“I am seeing more and more such discussions about this in China,” he said, adding that the proposals on international student fees could be a reaction to local discontent about the facilities and benefits for international students compared to those available for local students.

“There has been a backlash. Recently, you could hear such voices getting louder and louder, or even anger, especially with the pandemic when everyone’s wallet was getting smaller. So, this might be a reaction to what is happening,” he said.

Others have argued that international fees should rise gradually, so that the government can evaluate the impact of any changes on international student flows.

Mok said international fee rises were still the subject of speculation but added: “I’m sure the Chinese government and some of the [top] universities are testing out the idea [of fee rises].”

Confidence in China as a study destination

He noted that several Chinese universities have risen in global rankings and may feel that students from some regions, particularly Asia, will be well off enough to pay higher tuition fees, particularly when compared to going to higher studies in major destinations such as the United States and United Kingdom.

Mok said: “I think Chinese universities are confident enough they can recruit international students to justify comparing themselves to major study destinations and university systems around the world.

“Before COVID the Chinese government [was] rich enough to give a lot of scholarships to attract international student to China,” said Mok, but he noted that there are more and more students who are able to pay from Belt and Road countries that have economic agreements with China and which China has been keen to attract to its universities. They include students from Asia and Africa.

Some of these students “may want to go East rather than West”, said Mok. “Many students from Belt and Road initiative countries may also see the benefit of studying in China, building China networks and other considerations,” he said.

However, he emphasised that study abroad was an “individual calculation” for students, so it was difficult to predict the outcome of significant rises in tuition fees.

He said highly ranked Chinese universities such as Tsinghua and Peking University “have more bargaining power in terms of raising international fees because they are world class, and the income generated from those fees will be deployed to support international students with very good academic backgrounds but who may not be able to afford the [higher] fees”.

It will also depend on the discipline, he added, with China seen as globally competitive for science, engineering and some life sciences.