The number of foreign students in China has been growing annually since December 1950, when Tsinghua University enrolled the first batch of overseas students since the People’s Republic of China was founded. In 2014, there were 377 thousand international students from 203 countries, studying at 775 different educational or research institutes across 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities.
Nancy Wang, Publications Coordinator at the European Chamber, looks at the reasons why China is becoming increasingly popular with overseas students, and identifies what China could do to increase its standing as a study destination.
Among all the international students that came to China last year, the largest group came from Asia accounting for 59.8 per cent, with European students in second spot accounting for a not inconsiderable 17.9 per cent. A large proportion chose Beijing as their preferred destination, followed by Shanghai, Tianjin and Jiangsu.
Why do they come?
American NGO Project Atlas has monitored the number of international students in China since 2004, and report that the number has been increasing every year.
Young people want to come and experience China for various reasons. Some believe that there is simply more happening here than in their own countries. While China struggles to maintain a GDP growth rate of around seven per cent, this is still relatively high compared to other countries, and China is still developing. As China gears up to transition to the ‘new normal’, industries are looking to increase the quality of their output and international graduates believe they can play a valuable role here.
China remains a vital market for many foreign enterprises who are looking to grow and contribute to China’s burgeoning economy and overall development. Job-seeking graduates who have a practical understanding of China’s situation will naturally hold a competitive advantage over those that have never been here. If they have gained an internship or other work experience in China then it’s not hard to imagine how much higher their employment currency will rise, both here and back in their own countries.
On a practical note, for many international students studying in China is more economically viable. For example, the cost of tuition fees for an international relations degree at Tsinghua University for international students is CNY 60,000 for two years. An equivalent degree at the University of Glasgow takes only one year, and costs CNY 66,000. Though the difference in actual cost is not remarkable, taking the cost of living into account education in China is far more affordable for international students. The Chinese Government has also opened scholarship opportunities to more overseas students: in 2014, 10 per cent of all foreign students received scholarships.
The problems they face: air quality, transport, visas and curricula
The general conditions for foreign students needs to be put in perspective, however. Poor air quality, inadequate transportation in many cities, low quality curricula and visa restrictions for internships and full-time jobs post-graduation are some of the main challenges that overseas students face.
Air quality is a huge concern, particularly when “only eight out of China’s 74 biggest cities passed the government’s basic air quality standards in 2014.” Of these, Beijing and Shanghai—China’s two most popular destinations for international students—failed the assessment.
A 2015 CCTV survey on living conditions in China found that one in 10 working people spend more than two hours getting to work. According to a report released by Chinese digital mapping and navigation company AutoNavi, Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou—all top destinations for international students—are the three most congested cities.
Gaining an internship is not only a great experience, for some university courses it is a pre-requisite for successful graduation. Although interpretation and application of visa regulations varies throughout China, theoretically international students are permitted to take internships after receiving the relevant stamp from the local Public Security Bureau. In reality though, these stamps are very rarely awarded to international students. An example of different regional interpretation of visa regulations is in Shanghai: students who are successfully awarded the required documentation are restricted to interning with entities that are legally incorporated in Shanghai. This is extremely restrictive for students who want, or need, to take an internship in China.
When it comes to working long-term, foreigners are required to obtain a Z-visa. However, successful application is dependent upon two years’ of work experience. Each province has some degree of flexibility. In Guangdong, there is more focus placed on the relevance of the work experience. Beijing interprets this regulation much more strictly compared to other first-tier cities – if a foreign graduate in Beijing wishes to remain and work in China after graduation they are simply not allowed: they have to return home, or elsewhere, to gain the required work experience before returning to compete in China’s job market. Conditions changed recently in Shanghai when the first work permit for an international graduate was granted as part of the city’s new policy aimed at attracting talent. Although only applicable to international students applying for work in the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone, or the Zhangjiang National Innovation Demonstration Zone, it is still an encouraging step in the right direction.
These conditions are not only a disadvantage to foreign students, but also to China whose economy would benefit from a larger talent pool – especially in the areas of science and technology. A diverse group of young, talented people are required to develop a thriving atmosphere conducive to innovation – one of China’s key policy goals as it looks to embrace the ‘new normal’ and move up the global value chain.
Although the global ranking of many Chinese universities has increased in recent years, the quality of curricula is still below the expectation of foreign students in many cases, especially in the areas of arts and social sciences. Professors are often better at conducting research than they are at presenting material in lectures. For international students with high expectations of a complete academic experience in China, a low quality curriculum can be disappointing.
What can be improved?
The government has declared war against air pollution and China already has strict laws and regulations in place: the thing that will make everything click is enforcement. There have also been policy initiatives to improve transportation, such as the licence-plate lottery to reduce the number of new cars entering the roads each year. More market-based methods should be introduced to reduce the number of people driving and encourage use of public transportation. This would help to reduce congestion in China’s cities and positively impact air quality at the same time.
There should also be a reasonable easing of restrictions on visa requirements for students looking for internships, or post-graduates looking to remain and work in China, particularly in industries that require a young, energetic workforce to help drive innovation. It’s true that international graduates provide competition to domestic ones, but they can provide inspiration and vitality, too. The Ministry of Education has already launched a system to manage international students, and this could be employed to good effect, to identify how they could best contribute to China’s needs. Finding a balance between the benefits of nurturing an international workforce and protecting the local workforce is key.
There is certainly a need for university curricula to be improved. Professors who are currently highly valued based on the number of articles and academic papers they have published in top-tier magazines should also be evaluated on their ability to disseminate knowledge and how well they can identify and understand the needs of their students – this could be done via properly-structured student feedback. If this takes place, local students would reap the benefits too. Students that have highly-developed critical research skills can only add to China’s research and development capacity, and this will be crucial for easing China into the ‘new normal’ and making the transition both smooth and productive.
 Tsinghua University, International Students Education, 2014, viewed 25th June, 2015, <http://www.tsinghua.edu.cn/publish/newthu/newthu_cnt/education/edu-3.html>
 Ministry of Education, Data Statistics of International Students coming to China in 2014, 2014, viewed, 25th June, 2015, <http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_850/201503/184959.html>
 Project Atlas, International Students in China, 2014, viewed, 3rd July, 2015, <http://www.iie.org/Services/Project-Atlas/China/International-Students-In-China>
 Fortune, opportunity, time, happiness, where are they going? CCTV, 2nd March, 2015, viewed, 30th June, 2015,
 European Business in China – Beijing Position Paper 2015/2016, European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, April 2015, p.21, <http://www.europeanchamber.com.cn/en/publications-archive/331/Beijing_Position_Paper_2015_2016>