Enticing home China's best talent
As the world's most populous nation with a fast-growing middle class, it was inevitable that China would eventually have more students studying overseas than any other country. Numbers are ballooning and are expected to soon reach half a million annually. Some officials fret about the wave, worrying how many will come back after graduating, how to entice those with the highest qualifications and whether the views and values that have been acquired are good for Chinese society. Such concerns are generally unwarranted: What has been learned and acquired can only be good for development.
More than 3.5 million students have gone abroad since 1978, when the government sent the first batch of 860 overseas. Late leader Deng Xiaoping pushed the strategy for the sake of China's strength and development, encouraging graduates to return with their new-found skills. But he did not demand all should come back, instead saying it was a matter of personal freedom. An improved living and work environment was seen as the best enticement.
As the economy has grown, the vision has proved correct. While the number of annual returnees was for years low, it has risen almost 30-fold since the turn of the century and is now approaching half of those leaving. Job opportunities, improved living standards and family ties are among the reasons. But the vast majority of holders of doctorates, particularly in science and engineering, continue to remain abroad, despite stepped-up government campaigns and incentives.
The number of students seeking overseas study says much about the state of higher education in China. Reforming the system remains a necessity. But in a globalised world, the talent will always flow to where the best opportunities exist. For individuals and nations, overseas experience improves knowledge, skills and understanding. Even though China's economy is slowing, it remains among the world's most dynamic - which, with ever-improving development, is a guaranteed draw for the best and brightest Chinese.