sin yibo Halfway through earning a degree at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. But she has not been in the country since early 2020 when it closed its borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (she had returned to China at the time). Instead, the university has arranged for Ms. Chen and other students stranded in China to reside on a university campus in their home country while they continue their studies remotely. Chen has considered moving permanently to a Chinese university, but still plans to return to New Zealand when it relaxes its border controls.
Ms. Chen is relatively lucky. I enjoyed seeing parts of her country that she hadn’t been before. She spent the first months of this year at a university in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province with harsh winters. Then, for a change of scenery, I moved to a university campus in Fujian in the temperate south. Thousands of Chinese students who had not yet enrolled in universities abroad when the epidemic began found their plans upended due to travel restrictions related to the coronavirus. Universities in the West lived in fear that young Chinese, whose tuition fees are a lucrative source of income, would give up the dream of studying abroad.
There are good reasons to be concerned about Western universities. In 2019, about 700,000 Chinese went abroad to study, more than three times the number a decade ago. Most of them joined universities in English-speaking countries. Chinese students have several reasons to reconsider their views. Traveling abroad is difficult during the pandemic, and the virus is still prevalent in Western countries. China has grown larger in recent years, and some Chinese in the West have been subjected to racial abuse. Anti-Western sentiment has also risen in China, sometimes stoked by ruling party propaganda. Many Chinese resent Westerners who blame China for the initial cover-up of the coronavirus, or who fail to give it credit for its subsequent success in curbing the virus.
But the impact of the epidemic on China’s demand for study abroad has not been as bad as many had expected. Before the crisis, about 370,000 Chinese were studying at American universities, where they made up about a third of foreign students. In 2020, the number of Chinese enrolled, including those studying online from abroad, fell by about 15%. This is not the collapse some in the industry had predicted, says Martin MacFarlane of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The reason for the decline was almost entirely due to the decline in the number of international students starting new courses, which now appears to be rebounding. American Institute of International Education non Governmental OrganizationHe says the number of foreigners starting to study at US universities for the first time this fall was only 9% lower than in 2019 (even though about 35% were taking their courses online).
Australia has kept its borders closed to most foreign students throughout the pandemic. So far, nearly half of them study online from outside the country, including about 65% of Chinese. However, in Australia, total Chinese enrollment in tertiary education has declined by only 7%. Chinese students – worried about virus but eager to polish them Curriculum VitaeWestern-certified holders – who have demonstrated a willingness to take on online learning more than their peers of other nationalities. Enrollment by Indians, for whom in-person classes are a high priority, has fallen by more than a third.
British universities have performed the best. The number of Chinese students was rising rapidly in the years before the epidemic. This summer, the country began allowing foreigners to stay longer after graduation to work or look for a job. Britain’s rules on post-school employment are now among the most lax in the West. Since the pandemic began, Britain’s borders have mostly remained open to foreign students, as long as they are willing to withstand quarantine. In 2020, the number of Chinese admissions to undergraduate studies increased by 30%. This year, the number of Chinese applying to start college rose again by 17%.
In some countries, Chinese demand for higher education may falter. America will likely remain the single most popular destination for several more years. China is still widely regarded as having the largest number of great universities. But some Chinese have had their studies in America put off due to the xenophobic rhetoric of US officials during Donald Trump’s presidency, fueling perceptions of the Chinese as potential spies. Those fears may have eased a bit since Joe Biden took office. But surveys of Chinese considering studying in America have shown that they view America’s handling of the coronavirus as the worst in the English-speaking world. Chinese students are showing a growing interest in studying in Asia, says Simon Emmett IDP, a multinational agency that helps universities recruit them. Asian countries are considered to have a better record with Covid.
In Australia, there has been a significant drop in the number of Chinese students taking non-science courses such as English classes, says Peter Hurley of Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, a think tank in Melbourne. Students often use these courses as preparation for studying at Australian universities. This may indicate that Chinese enrollment in universities in Australia will continue to decline, at least for some time, even after the country reopens.
In China there is another indication of unstable demand. A large proportion of Chinese who leave the country to study are obligated to do so at the end of their compulsory education, when they are about 15 years old. Which offers curricula focused on studying abroad. Frances Miller, a university counselor at one such school in Xi’an, says the number of 15-year-olds enrolled in her international program fell sharply in 2020, before recovering somewhat this year. It is believed that other similar schools are having difficulty recruiting students. Xiaofeng Wan, who manages international admissions at Amherst College in America, notes that last year more Chinese children than usual were selected to take part in the senior high school entrance examination. Sometimes students who want to study abroad ignore this.
There are other long-term challenges. The number of college-age Chinese is no longer increasing. Amid economic headwinds, fewer families will have the resources to distribute foreign tuition fees. Meanwhile, China’s universities are improving. About 47 million people are enrolled in higher education there, up from about 6 million in 1998. Before the pandemic, an expert at the British Council, a state-funded cultural organization, estimated that the number of Chinese pursuing a foreign degree could begin to decline. in 2023.
China does not appear eager to deter study abroad. During the pandemic, Chinese officials have supported efforts by foreign universities to help Chinese students continue their studies online, says Brett Berquist of the University of Auckland. The Chinese government has stopped issuing passports to most people, but has given them to those who plan to study abroad.
Officials still want skilled Chinese youth to receive the best training in science, medicine, and engineering, wherever they can be found in the world. After all, about 80% of these students return to China after graduation. For many of them, the allure of China ultimately trumps that of the West. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the heading “The Attraction of the West”