Fewer mainland high school students are sitting the national university entrance exam and ever more are going overseas to study. The trend is not surprising given the impact of the one-child policy and the possibilities and aspirations that go with burgeoning wealth. Yet it has evoked worry that education standards will slip and some of the country's best and brightest will leave forever. Such concerns are unfounded.
Education has gone global. The world's universities vie for students to increase diversity and cover costs. Mainland parents are no different from those elsewhere; those that have the financial means want their children to reap the benefits of foreign study to improve their chances of a good job. Most Western nations are in the doldrums, so graduates are generally eager to return to their homeland's dynamic economy.
In the past five years, the number of students going overseas has been growing annually by 20 per cent; this year, an estimated 430,000 secondary-school leavers will make the trip. Last year, 2.25 million Chinese were working towards foreign degrees, mostly in the US, Britain and Australia. Those figures account for only a fraction of the 9.15 million who last week sat the examination known as the gaokao.
Gaokao applications are falling, but more for reasons of demographics than overseas aspirations. That does not mean that mainland universities are losing their shine. The system will have to adapt to the changes and perhaps some tertiary institutions will close. A two-way highway of learning will continue and grow - a rising number of foreign students are eager to study at Chinese universities.
The wider world will best get to know about China and how its people think by interacting with them. On their return, graduates will be fluent in a foreign language, understand another culture and be adaptable to a multicultural working environment. Those are valuable - and necessary - skills for a country that needs to walk with greater assuredness and empathy on the global stage. The more people who have such an opportunity, the better.