All aboard the Euro express
HUNAN-BORN LI XIN is 24 years old and a long way from home. Her parents, a tax office clerk and retired accountant, are paying her living expenses while she takes an 18-month master's course in international business at Gothenburg University, Sweden, studying in English.
Ms Li admits to getting lonely sometimes, but she is far from being the only Chinese student in Scandinavia. There are tens of thousands of them on university campuses all over Europe.
Chinese students have been venturing overseas since the Beijing government began the reforms that opened China up to the outside world in the late 1970s and 80s.
However, students then tended to go to the US, Japan, Canada and Australia, whereas now Europe is also attracting vast numbers of Chinese postgraduates, undergraduates and even secondary school pupils.
They hope that when they have completed their studies, the door to better jobs and more money will open for them, both abroad and at home. The European attraction is the wide availability of English-taught courses and free or low tuition costs, according to the British Council.
Ms Li said: 'There are too many Chinese people in the UK already and the tuition fees there are too high. Even if I was accepted by a university in the US, it's not easy to get a visa now. In Sweden people speak English and tuition is free.'
Sweden is debating bringing in charges for foreigners, but at the moment, the internet and word of mouth are adding to the current wave of student immigration, says Ann McKinnon, international co-ordinator in Gothenburg university's economics department.
'There are a large number of Chinese in Gothenburg and the message is spread from friend to friend. We have noticed many come from the same area,' she said. Exact figures for different nationalities are not available, but the number of Chinese students has been rising steadily.
About 300 applied to Ms McKinnon's department alone this year with 24 being accepted.
The Netherlands, France, Germany and Denmark are also among the countries emerging as key study destinations for Chinese students. Last year there were 20,141 studying in Germany, an increase of 42 per cent on 2002.
About 2,900 Chinese students went to study in France last year, an increase of 20 per cent on 2002, and 12 times the number five years ago. There are now 11,000 Chinese students in the country, and another 30,000 Chinese studying in Ireland.
In 2002-03 there were almost 32,000 Chinese students in the UK, the most popular country for them in Europe, partly due, the British Council says, to its academic excellence and internationally recognised qualifications. The number of applications for study visas to the UK increased from 5,400 in the 1998-1999 academic year to 35,000 in 2003-2004.
The desperation to go to the UK, where courses are often shorter, has even led to dishonesty. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service says that among the 1,000 students who made applications this year (2004) with non-existent or faked A-level qualifications were two groups of 200 applications submitted by students from China and Pakistan.
Recently the British Embassy in Beijing tightened up visa procedures, leading to an increase in the number of applications rejected, to 30 per cent compared with 25 per cent last year. But many students are determined to climb every hurdle to study in Europe.
Zhang Xiaolei, from Beijing, wanted to improve his English and took a one-year master's course in urban management in Rotterdam, Netherlands. It cost around US$9,000 plus living expenses, but 24-year-old Xiaolei, the son of a government worker, said he thought it was reasonable.
'I wanted to experience a new lifestyle, improve my chances of success, and the tuition fees were not that high,' he said. 'It was too difficult to go to the US and it's hard to go to top universities in the UK, where the cost is so high. In some UK universities there are too many Chinese students and the quality of the education is poor.'
That Mr Zhang cannot speak Dutch did not matter given the high standard of English in the Netherlands and the number of foreign friends he made at his university. If he had been homesick though, he would have been easily reminded of home - there are nearly 7,000 Chinese students studying in the Netherlands, compared with only a few hundred in 2001.
Robbert-Jan Slobben, programme manager for the English-taught BSc in Economics and Business at Amsterdam University, said that although only 18 Chinese students were enrolled on the course in 2003-2004: 'We could have admitted many more, but we have a policy of admitting no more than 10 per cent from one nationality.'
Although non-European students pay more than their EU counterparts in the Netherlands, that isn't stopping thousands of Chinese youngsters going there. So many apply to Amsterdam University that it is not actively recruiting Chinese students, as it already receives many more applications from China than there are places available.
There are other similar tales elsewhere. At Clare College, a private school in Oxford, UK, even a few years ago the Chinese intake of students was limited, now it could fill its places with them.
Dr Frank Pieke, director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at the UK's Oxford University, said China's growing middle class had much to do with the increasing numbers of young people studying in Europe. 'Chinese people are very upwardly mobile and into opportunities for their children. It's also part of the go-abroad craze; it gives them status, but there's also the lemming effect, where they all follow each other.
'There are more seriously affluent Chinese now. They have a house in the village, a flat in the city, a car and a driver. They travel but it is often difficult to get visas. So they plough their money into their kids. Many people who got rich illegally do this as a way of evading taxes.'
It's not all rosy for every student even if money is no problem. Li Ying, 24, from Tianjin, has just returned home after failing her US$22,000-a-year BSc course in London. 'There is no denying some parents have unrealistic expectations,' she said. 'They really believe their child can do well at a European university and will go back to China with honours.'
Given the sheer numbers of potential students in China coupled with the cash they can bring to those universities which do charge, it is not surprising that some institutions actively try to entice new students through their doors.
Many spend time building links with Chinese universities and visit China regularly to recruit, helped by Chinese agents and website pages. European universities are also keen to recruit more foreigners for advanced research. Many lose their postgraduate students to overseas campuses, and Chinese students can help to fill the gap.
Some universities, for example those in the UK, charge foreign students around double what a home-grown student would pay. They say it's because they receive no government funding for the former, whereas they do for the latter.
This commercial aspect to studying attracts criticism. 'Some Chinese students see their foreign university as a company, looking only to serve its own commercial interests,' said 25-year-old Li Keji, from Guangzhou. 'Many students feel they are losing face; they think universities only accept them because they can pay the high fees, and maybe they aren't really good enough.'
Miss Li's parents, a carpenter and a factory quality controller, have spent their savings to pay the US$14,000 fees for her master's degree in public administration in Britain's tourist city of York. Their daughter works 20 hours a week in a hotel restaurant to help pay for her living expenses.
Of course, the very best students are fought over by the most prestigious universities for their brains, not their money. Dr Pieke from Oxford University said: 'China is a very large pond of fish and the catch can be of fantastic quality.'
Many students plan to stay on in Europe after they graduate to improve their language skills and get experience in a foreign workplace, but many are keen to return to China despite the stiff competition they will face from the thousands of others who have also studied abroad.
Li Xin in Sweden said: 'I'm going to go back to China to find a job, but that all depends ...'