More Chinese students look to Asia for higher degrees

More mainland Chinese students are opting to study in Asia rather than the West, according to new figures. While the trend is driven in part by relatively lower costs, experts say high failure rates among those sitting entrance examinations for higher degrees at China’s universities are a key factor.

According to Qiang Zha, associate professor of education at York University, Canada, the main driver of Chinese students applying to universities in Asia is that Chinese students can get an advanced degree at an affordable price; a second reason is that “getting into graduate programmes in China is very competitive”.

Private education consultancy surveys in China put the proportion of applicants who fail the postgraduate exam and then apply to universities in Asia at between 40% (estimated by the agency Yangyang Study Abroad) and 66% (estimated by other lesser-known agencies).

According to official government figures, around three million test-takers failed to get places on postgraduate programmes last year as competition stiffened – many students retake the exam several times to improve their scores – and the number could rise to four million this year.

‘Studying nearby’

Choosing to stay closer to home is also a factor behind the rising interest in Asian study destinations among Chinese students.

The 2023 White Paper on Studying in China released by the New Oriental Education and Technology Group last month noted that the number of Chinese students in Southeast Asia is “increasing year on year”. It pointed to at least 100,000 Chinese students in Southeast Asia, noting that staying close to home had become important after the COVID-19 pandemic, while also highlighting relatively easy cultural adaptation in the region.

While the United States, United Kingdom and Canada were still the main countries of interest for Chinese students, ‘studying nearby’ has become a new trend for a bachelor degree, while those seeking a masters or doctoral degree have become more cautious about their choices since pandemic restrictions were lifted.

For example, the number of Chinese students studying in Thailand has doubled within five years, according to the White Paper which has been released annually for the past nine years.

While the United States remains the most favoured overseas study destination for undergraduates, chosen by 34% of respondents, this was a drop from 45% in 2019, according to the results of a survey conducted by Vision Overseas Consulting, a subsidiary of New Oriental, of over 9,550 Chinese students across 34 provincial regions.

The percentage of students going to the US for postgraduate studies dropped from 45% to 30% from 2019 to 2023, while those going to Hong Kong increased from 14% to 22%, and Singapore from 9% to 15%.

The percentage of students going to the UK and Canada remained relatively unchanged over the past five years, according to the White Paper.

In Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – the main destinations for studying abroad in Southeast Asia – Chinese students now account for the highest proportion of foreign students. Among them, the number of Chinese students studying in Malaysia and Thailand has exceeded 60% of foreign students in the respective countries.

Many are from China’s southern and border provinces, including rural areas where it is particularly difficult to compete in examinations like China’s graduate entrance exam.

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