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%

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