Along with China’s economic revolution, an equally dynamic educational revolution has also occurred – ever since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping began to send students and scholars to study abroad as part of his broad modernization efforts, China has placed a high assessment on the value of overseas education. Over the past decade, China has become the world’s largest supplier of international students to countries around the world.
Within China, Guangdong Province, home to China’s affluent Pearl River Delta, represents one of the best markets for overseas education because of its long history of sending students overseas, its economic achievements, and its close integration with Hong Kong and Macau. The first ever Chinese student to graduate from an U.S. university came from Guangdong- Mr. Yung Wing, a graduate of Yale College in 1854. Guangdong is the wealthiest province in China, contributing approximately 12.5% of national economic output, and has enjoyed double digit GDP growth for more than 20 years. As a result Guangdong’s residents have the wealth necessary to pay for their children to study abroad. Furthermore, as a result of China’s “one-child” policy, many families are willing to invest large portions of their income in their only child’s education. Guangdong residents account for one fourth of Chinese students who study overseas. Guangdong population accounts for one thirteenth of Chinese population.
The local governments in South China have also been very supportive of students going overseas and returning to work in South China afterwards. In 1998, the first Convention of Overseas Chinese Scholars was launched in Guangzhou and been held every year ever since its inception. Also in 1988, the Guangzhou Municipal government established the office of Overseas Chinese Scholars Affairs.
In China, graduates face a fiercely competitive job market. In May 2009, 6.11 million students graduated from colleges in China. By July 1 that year, only 4.15 million, or 68 percent, had found employment. Looking at the same period in 2008, the percentage of graduates employed was exactly the same – 68 percent. Many students believe that obtaining a degree from an overseas institution will enable them to set themselves apart from other job applicants and land the type of job they want. Because of the growth of the global corporation, ambitious students sense that studying abroad will impress multinational employers, which are considered prestigious places to work in China. Therefore, for Chinese students who wish to find better jobs and higher salaries, studying overseas is an attractive option.
The relatively poor teaching and lack of prestigious domestic institutions are also strong factors boosting demand for overseas education. The general level of China’s higher education remains low. A 2006 study by McKinsey, a consultancy, found that of the country’s 1.6m young engineers, only 10% were capable of working for multinational firms. In global rankings, Chinese universities do not compare well to colleges in other countries. In a ranking by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, no Chinese institutions appear in the world’s top 200 universities; Britain’s Times Higher Education magazine puts Peking University 50th and only six Chinese institutions appear in the top 200. In addition, Chinese universities can't compete with the overall experience of an American college, which provide more opportunities for out-of-class activities, an open learning environment and increased cultural diversity. Overall, the low quality of domestic institutions encourages many Chinese students to seek a better education abroad.
Most importantly, overseas education is now more attainable for Chinese students. China has always sent students overseas, but until the opening up the economy in the early 1980s, it was only the children of Government officials and other well-connected students and researchers who could afford to travel abroad for further education. With an increasingly open society and rapidly increasing wealth, the numbers travelling overseas has increased dramatically in the past ten years. Some 47 million trips were made by mainland tourists to overseas destinations in 2009, up 3 percent year-on-year. Families are fully prepared to spend many times their annual income to get a good quality overseas education for their children. There is a whole emerging middle class of Chinese, well over 300 million, many of them with one-child families who are interested in sending their son or daughter abroad to gain the best possible educational experience.
By Eileen Bai