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China outbound student numbers at record high

China’s outbound student numbers are showing little sign of slowing down, with the Chinese Ministry of Education recording a total of 608,400 study abroad students in 2017. This is the first time the number has exceeded the 600,000 mark and represents an 11.7% increase on 2016 figures.

China's outbound student numbers are showing little sign of slowing down. Photo: Sunshine_bright/Twenty20China's outbound student numbers are showing little sign of slowing down. Photo: Sunshine_bright/Twenty20

Students returning to China after studying abroad increased 11.9% to 480,900

According to a MoE statement, the number of ‘sea turtles’, or students returning to China after studying abroad, also increased in 2017 – up 11.9% to 480,900.

“China will remain the world’s most important source of international students in the foreseeable future”

This brings the total number of Chinese students who finished their studies abroad and return home to 80%,  the same as the 2016 figure.

The data also revealed that in 2017, there were 541,300 students studying abroad at their own expense, which accounted for 88.97% of the total, while 31,200 students were supported abroad by the state.

Taiwanese academic and researcher Sheng-Ju Chan told The PIE News that the reason for the upward trend in outbound students is twofold.

The main reasons are economic growth and cultural expectation,” he explained.

“The former is related to the improved economic condition of the average family in China. Along with the rise of the middle-class, more families are able to sponsor their young generations for such overseas adventures.

“The latter denotes the strong motivations of Chinese traditions in pursuing greater educational opportunities. Having a higher degree at well-known universities overseas means better opportunities with upward social mobility.”

“Trump’s policies have played a role in making more and more people come back”

Academic principal at Beijing Kaiwen Academy Shiny Wang told The PIE that President Trump’s policies are among the reasons for the significant number of Chinese students returning home after their studies.

As the hottest destination, the US has attracted thousands of students from China, said Wang.

“I’ve found that Trump’s policies have played a role in making more and more people come back [to China]…as well as the competition for jobs and visas issues. 

“Students believe there are more opportunities for them to find jobs and develop [themselves] if they come back rather than staying overseas.”

The continuing rise in overseas Chinese student numbers will come as welcome news to many educational institutions, particularly in the UK where almost one-third of non-EU students are Chinese.

However senior analyst for British Council’s SIEM East Asia division Kevin Prest warned that a dependence on Chinese student numbers brings its own risks.

“Over the longer term, Chinese universities are getting better, the number of available local university places (and especially postgraduate places) is increasing, and the number of Chinese students graduating from high school is decreasing,” Prest said.

However, Chan said that it is unlikely that demand for university places in China among Chinese students will overtake the attractiveness of overseas study any time soon.

“Though some students might choose to stay with improved universities in China, others would consider overseas destinations because of employment prospects, living environment and even permanent migration,” he told The PIE.

“I predict that the numbers of outbound students will stay at the similar or even higher level for a while because an overseas choice is based on the push factors of Chinese society and pull incentives of hosting countries.. and the tightening political atmosphere right now [in China] propels the outgoing students.”

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