Barack Obama has pledged to expand educational exchanges between the United States and China, saying his administration would increase the number of Americans studying on the mainland to 100,000.
Speaking to a group of young people in Shanghai yesterday, the US president said he strongly believed co-operation should go beyond governments.
'The research we share, the business we do, the knowledge we gain and even the sports we play, these bridges must be built by young men and women just like you and your counterparts in the United States,' he said. Obama did not specify a time frame, but as an annual target it would be a dramatic increase on the current figure.
Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that the US surpassed Japan for the first time last year and was second only to South Korea for the number of its students on the mainland. The ministry said that 19,914 of 223,499 overseas students on the mainland last year came from the US. The majority of American students on the mainland stay on a short-term basis for language studies, while most Chinese students in the US stay for the duration of a degree course.
Obama said China provided the second-largest number of foreign students to the US.
According to the annual Open Doors report published by the Institute of International Education, the mainland sent 98,235 students to the US in the 2008-09 academic year, up 21 per cent from the previous year. India was the leading country of origin for the eighth consecutive year, sending 103,260 students last year.
'I think we're going to be seeing 100,000 students from each for years to come, with an increasing share of them being undergraduates,' the institute's executive vice-president, Dr Peggy Blumenthal, was quoted as saying by The New York Times.
Blumenthal said the growing share of undergraduates would change the face of the Chinese students' presence in the US. 'It used to be that they were all in the graduate science departments, but now, with the one-child policy, more and more Chinese parents are taking their considerable wealth and investing it in that one child getting an American college education,' she said.
Overall, the number of international students at US colleges increased by 8 per cent to an all-time high of 671,616 in 2008-09 - the largest percentage increase in more than 25 years, according to the report. Undergraduate enrolment rose 11 per cent, compared with only a 2 per cent increase in graduate enrolment.
This was reflected by the make-up of the Chinese student body in the US. Last year, the mainland sent 26,275 undergraduates and 57,451 graduate students to the US - compared with 8,034 undergraduates and 50,976 graduate students five years earlier.
With the current recession, the influx of international students had been especially important to the American economy, Dr Allan Goodman, president of the institute, said.
'International education is domestic economic development,' Goodman told the Times. 'International students shop at the local Walmart, rent rooms and buy food. Foreign students bring US$17.8 billion to this country.
'A lot of campuses this year are increasing their international recruitment, trying to keep their programmes whole by recruiting international students to fill their spaces.'
Increasingly US universities are investing in global networks to expand their number of international students, and the mainland is seen as a rich source of potential undergraduates eager to improve their English or earn a foreign degree.
'There's growing disposable income in China, and not enough good universities to meet the demand,' Dr Mitch Leventhal, vice-chancellor of global affairs at the State University of New York, told the Times. 'And in China, especially, studying in the United States is a great differentiator, because when students get home, they speak English.'