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Global sector sees opportunities despite China’s population drop

The globe's top source market has seen its population drop, but international educators say that opportunities in China are still too big to ignore.
January 25 2024
3 Min Read

The population of China fell by 2.08 million in 2023 as birthrates hit a record low – international educators say that institutions must take note in order to ensure the sustainability of the sector and that continued growth is no longer a given.

According to figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics China’s population dropped 0.15% to 1.409 billion last year.

Keri Ramirez, managing director of Studymove, said Australia’s education sector has taken notice of the announcement from China.

For a country that has consistently been the top source market for students, there are concerns that an ageing population would be reluctant to let the young talent leave the country, he suggested.

“Over the past three years in Australia, more than one-third of the total number of student visas granted for higher education programs (35%) were issued to students from China (excluding SARs),” he said.

“Countries with an ageing population may experience future skill shortages and will be reluctant to let the young talent leave the country.”

While “there is no doubt that the Chinese population has peaked”, Navitas modelling shows that continued long-term economic growth will likely increase demand for international education in China, according to the company’s general manager for China, Kim Eklund.

“We know that Chinese families value quality education, prestige and ranking; and we expect the segment of the Chinese market looking to invest in overseas education for their children to expand in the next decade, albeit it at a more modest rate,” he said.

Ramirez pointed to research by New Zealand-based sociologist and Massey University emeritus professor, Paul Spoonley.

Spoonley has previously called on the sector to begin turning to Sub-Saharan Africa, rather than China and India, which is expected to have huge population growth in the next decades.

With the demographic shifts in China, in addition to other countries, the sector can “expect that universities will reassess their engagement strategies with source countries”, Ramirez added.

Institutions may also explore alternative channels for delivering education programs, such as transnational education programs, he said.

“It will be essential to understand these changes to ensure the sustainability of the sector.”

However, Eklund also pointed to geopolitical tensions beginning to dissipate and Chinese families responding to current economic challenges at home in the short term as “favourable” for the sector.

US president Joe Biden met with China’s Xi Jinping in November last year, with some saying the high level talks could be a “positive signal” for improved relations and better study abroad policies.

However, tensions around research remain. Germany, as well as Canada, are just two countries that have revealed measures to counter what they view as risks.

“Our latest round of agent sentiment research in 2023 suggested that economic headwinds in China might also be driving increased interest in migration opportunities, which is closely tied into demand for international education,” Eklund said.

In the UK, undergraduate numbers from China dropped 1.4% in 2023, but acceptances through UCAS have more than doubled since 2016 to over 33,000, UCAS’s director of international, Chris Kirk, said.

In total, the country attracted some 151,690 Chinese students in 2021/22, the most recent HESA statistics show – some 88,755 of whom were studying at postgraduate level.

“The percentage of students then choosing to study abroad is still small in comparison to China’s overall population”

This is actually an increase from the 83,720 Chinese students studying postgrad in the 2020/21 academic year.

Kirk pointed to its recent ‘Global Insights: What are the experiences of Chinese students in the UK?’ report, which details the attractiveness of the UK.

“While record numbers took China’s ‘Gaokao’ university and college entrance exam last year (over 12.9m people), far outstripping mainland China’s HE capacity of around 3,000 institutions, the percentage of students then choosing to study abroad is still small in comparison to China’s overall population,” he continued.

Growth is not guaranteed due to “challenges around affordability, global competition, geopolitics, and government policy”, Kirk reiterated.

“The UK HE sector will need to look at ways of supporting trusted, sustainable and high-quality growth – proactively promoting more diversity in subject choice to students from China, such as creative arts, social sciences and engineering. This will help the UK remain an attractive study destination in an increasingly competitive global market.”

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