The great university brain drain

Students at elite Shanghai schools are bypassing taxing exams and heading straight overseas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 12:49pm

For most mainland high school graduates, these two weeks mark the time when they must compete for a university place.

But that's something that doesn't concern many graduates of Shanghai's elite schools. They skipped the university entrance exams - the dreaded gaokao - because they were already admitted by foreign universities months ago.

The trend is so widespread that more than one-third of the graduates from some of Shanghai's most prestigious high schools are preparing to study abroad.

The Shanghai Foreign Language School sent 80 of its 219 graduates overseas last year, the Jiefang Daily reported.

Shanghai Education Commission vice-director Yin Jie told the Oriental Morning Post a tenth of the city's students chose not to do the entrance exam in 2011.

It's not that all these students don't think they can make the grade, as was the case a decade ago when most who studied overseas had failed to pass the gaokao and were sent to foreign universities by wealthy families.

Rather, more students are electing to study abroad. Applications for university entrance exams have fallen to just 53,000 this year, from 114,000 in 2006.

Some of that decline has been attributed to an ageing population and an overall drop in the student population. But experts say an exodus to top overseas universities has also played an important role.

Those numbers don't even account for students who applied for the entrance exams, but decided not to show for the tests because they were accepted into foreign universities in the intervening months.

The trend helps explains why International Baccalaureate (IB) and A-level courses have mushroomed in Shanghai.

The US Institute of International Education's most recent Open Doors report said that the number of mainland students going to study in the United States rose 31 per cent last year. Many come from Shanghai and other cities in the increasing affluent Yangtze River Delta.

More than 1,000 elite Nanjing students have been enrolled by top foreign universities in each of the past three years, Xinhua reports. One local father was quoted as saying that his family thought it would be worth selling their flats to send his son abroad.

The number of Hangzhou graduates planning to study abroad has grown 20 to 30 per cent a year, the Qiangjiang Evening News reports.

Students say they aspire for the academic environment in overseas universities and want the challenge of competing against top students from around the world.

Some are interested in Western culture and another society because they have travelled abroad before, whether on family trips or to attend study camps with their peers.

To shine in their applications, such students not only concentrate on English, but also participate in community and voluntary activities. Such extracurricular experience has little impact on domestic applications, but can tip the balance on foreign ones.

A survey by mainland education website EOL found that 59 per cent of high school students wanted to earn their undergraduate degrees overseas. A further 14 per cent said they expected to pursue graduate degrees abroad after completing undergraduate studies in China.

Such results may grieve domestic universities, which have been fighting desperately for top students. Without elite students, the central government's prospects for building world "first-class universities" - something it spends billions of yuan on each year - seem dim.

The trend could fuel a national brain drain as many who study abroad later opt not to return to China. Parents in Shanghai and other rich cities complain that once their children go to study abroad, it's hard to persuade them to return.

On average, less than a third of Chinese students who have studied abroad since the country opened its doors three decades ago have returned, according to a report last year by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The rate has been rising in recent years amid the economic woes of the West, but remains lower than many other countries.

The authorities should reflect on why the country's top universities have lost appeal among elite students and native graduates are slow to return.