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Will softer US-China relations prevent future Chinese student declines?

At a high-level meeting between China’s Xi Jinping and the United States’ Joe Biden, the two sides agreed to promote and strengthen dialogue and cooperation between the countries. 

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"The isolationism and unilateralism pursued during the Trump administration had a huge impact on student recruitment to the US"

This includes working to increase flights in early 2024 and encouraging the expansion of educational, student, youth, cultural, sports, and business exchanges. 

Will this play a positive role in tackling the sharp decline in the number of Chinese students in the United States?

According to the 2022/2023 Open Doors report, the total number of Chinese students in the United States was 289,526, a slight decrease of -0.2% year-on-year.

Compared with the peak of 372,532 Chinese students in the United States in the 2019/2020 academic year, this marked a decrease of 83,000 students (-22%). The numbers are now at the same level as they were in the 2013/2014 academic year.

The decline runs counter to the trend of a sharp rebound in global student mobility since the pandemic. 

The 2023/2024 academic year is the first year for “post-pandemic study abroad” for Chinese students in the United States. It is expected that the number of Chinese students choosing US institutions will increase, ending the pattern of decline, but the growth rate depends on another influencing factor – international relations. 

The isolationism and unilateralism pursued during the Trump administration had a huge impact on student recruitment to the US.

Between 2017 to 2019, the growth rate of Chinese students in the US slowed significantly, with the 2019/2020 academic year only increasing by 0.8% year-on-year, the smallest increase in 11 years.

During the same period, the growth in the total number of international students studying in the United States also slowed down (the year-on-year decrease of -1.8% was the first decline in the past 11 years). 

The Open Doors 2019 report exposed the main reasons for the decline of international students in American universities: feeling unwelcome in the United States, high personal safety risks, employment difficulties, increased difficulty in visa application and the denial of visas.

At the end of July 2021, the United States published “A Renewed US Commitment to International Education”, the first sentence of which is: “The United States cannot afford to be separated from the world stage”.  This marks a public rejection of the previous study abroad policy.

The sensitivity of Chinese families studying abroad to international relations will greatly affect their study abroad decisions. This high-level meeting between China the United States will be a positive signal for the improvement of international relations and the boosting of study abroad policies.

About the author: Andrew Zhao runs the international education section of China Education Online. This article originally appeared on China Education Online and has been edited for length and clarity. 

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