China seeks to change international school equation

B.C. schools might be forced to rethink strategy as China becomes ‘importer’ of students

The Chinese government recently made its annual selection of B.C. and Alberta college students to receive full scholarships for a year of studies in China. Officials say the effort to draw more international students to Chinese schools has long-term benefits | Chuck Chiang

The higher-education industry in B.C. and Canada has benefited tremendously in the last decade from the boom in international students worldwide – a phenomenon largely driven by outbound Chinese students.

But that trend is unlikely to be sustained in the current model, industry observers say, as competition from schools in traditionally non-English-speaking nations, including a serious push from China to go from “net exporter” to “net importer” in the education sector, is set to take up more market share in the next decade.

Rahul Choudaha, executive vice-president at U.S.-based StudyPortals, spoke at the recent conference of the BC Council for International Education (BCCIE) in Vancouver on this topic, warning local universities and colleges that a more targeted approach, and a better understanding of the student demographic being targeted, is needed to maintain current growth rates.

“After China, what’s the next China? If you look at the economic growth patterns for the next 15 years, there is no next country that can come up with that big mass of students who have the affordability and appetite to go abroad,” Choudaha said. “So we need creativity in terms of how capacity in international education needs to move forward.”

According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, 494,525 international students were studying in Canada last year, with China (28%) and India (25%) dominating the top spots in the rankings. Canada isn’t alone in benefiting from the wave of international students from Asia in the last few years; statistics show the total number of international students worldwide increased from 3.1 million in 2007 to 4.6 million in 2015, and about 75% of the group went to schools in high-income, industrialized countries like the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

That is changing, however.

According to a Times Higher Education World University Rankings report, experts predict China will be hosting more than 500,000 international students by 2020.

In 2015, Beijing launched its Double First Class initiative for its top universities, throwing significant funds behind making Chinese universities and their intra-university disciplines into global leaders in their fields by 2050.

BCCIE executive director Randall Martin said some of that effort is already being reflected in an increasing number of students from Asia, Europe and Africa choosing China as an educational destination, something that B.C. students are also increasingly considering.

“A lot of people appreciate that China, with the largest population in the world, also fills the global classroom,” Martin said. “It is really the largest exporter of students into countries around the world, but I think a lot of people don’t realize that China is now also the third most popular destination in the world for students to go.”

In June, the Chinese government presented its annual selection of about 15 B.C. and Alberta college students to receive full scholarships for a year of studies in China, and officials made it clear that the effort to draw more students from Canada and elsewhere in the world into China’s educational machine will continue, since the leaders in Beijing believe the process has long-term benefits.

“The friendship between peoples is the foundation of state-to-state relations,” said Tong Xiaoling, consul general of China in Vancouver, at the scholarship presentation. “The Chinese government has always seen political mutual trust, economic and trade exchanges, as well as people-to-people exchanges as three pillars of diplomacy…. The door to China will not be closed. And our door will be opening up wider and wider.”

Part of the attraction for international students to an up-and-coming destination like China is price. Choudaha said that international students can be classified according to four general categories based on their financial ability to pursue an education abroad, as well as their motivation to advance their careers by acquiring international education credentials.

For two groups – “high flyers,” with ample resources and career ambitions, and “explorers,” who have the money to travel but are not looking for career benefits – the attraction to places like B.C. or Australia will remain high, because the lifestyle of the location plays a big role in candidates’ choice of where to study.

But the two other groups – “strugglers,” with low resources and ambition who tend to view education as only one of the reasons they want to leave their homelands, and “strivers,” who have fewer resources but maintain a focus on career advancement above all else – will be influenced by things like cheaper tuition, the availability of full scholarships and a ready-made link to the workplace during and after graduation.

Those two latter categories would be enticed to go to schools in China, Choudaha said, meaning that B.C. schools could lose out on a portion of the demographic they have been attracting.

“From the students’ perspective, could it happen that … students in Africa who are looking to go abroad with price points of less than US$10,000, and they look at the top-ranked universities in the top 500 and see 50 of those schools are in China?” Choudaha asked. “Would they come here or go to China? The key message here is that we cannot ignore the price imbalance between here and other countries. We cannot ignore competition that is emerging from new markets.”

The Times Higher Education school rankings report noted that groups like the China Scholarship Council have made “large pots of scholarship money available” on top of “extremely attractive” tuition costs, and several western schools (such as Duke University and New York University in the United States, as well as the University of Liverpool in Great Britain) have already tried to adjust by entering into Chinese joint ventures.

China’s ability to attract students remains strongest in Asia, and the availability of English programs – a key selling point among international students – remains limited. But a look at the top origin points for international students in China reveals several overlaps with the corresponding list in Canada (South Korea, United States, Pakistan, India, Japan and Vietnam appear on both top-15 lists), meaning as Chinese schools grow stronger, Canadian institutions hoping to draw from the same pool will likely find it harder to compete.