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US universities are at risk of losing out as Chinese students increasingly look to continue their studies in other countries. Photo: AFP

Chinese students turn away from US universities with Britain the big winner

  • Unfriendly policies, an out-of-control pandemic and social unrest add up to a decline in popularity for overseas study
  • American institutions still regarded as best in the world but other countries are surging up the charts as preferred destinations

It was a tough decision for mainland university graduate Zancy Duan to give up her coveted place at a US Ivy League school.

Duan, from China’s eastern province of Zhejiang, had been admitted by Cornell University as a candidate for a master’s degree, along with admissions from several other American schools. But at the end of April, with the coronavirus pandemic at its peak, she rushed to apply for European universities.

“Besides the Covid-19 pandemic, a string of unfriendly policies by President Trump towards international students; his blame on China as the cause of the coronavirus disease; and the current security situation affected by the Black Lives Matter movement – all gave me a sense of unease,” Duan told the South China Morning Post.

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“Therefore, from policy and security perspectives, studying in the US was not a good option for me at this moment. Actually, many of my friends who had planned to study in the US have instead applied for Singapore, Hong Kong or European schools in the past few months.”

For decades, the US has been the top choice for Chinese students seeking to continue their studies abroad. The latest statistics from China’s Ministry of Education showed overseas Chinese students increased from 285,000 in 2010 to 662,000 in 2018.

Since 2009, China has been the biggest source of international students for American schools. One in three of the more than one million overseas students in the US comes from China. But now, Chinese students are having second thoughts and this year marks a big change in their choices.

Britain surpassed the US for the first time as year as their preferred overseas study destination, according to a report by the Beijing-based New Oriental Education & Technology Group, an overseas study agency also famous for its English teaching.

A survey of 6673 Chinese students by the company found 42 per cent hoped to study in Britain compared to just 37 per cent who nominated the US. It is a significant turnaround to four years ago when 30 per cent of respondents hoped to study in Britain while 46 per cent planned to study in the US.

Tide of Chinese students studying abroad slowed by coronavirus, US tensions

Market consulting firm Qianzhan Industry Research Institute said both Britain and the US were still top choices for Chinese students, but people were currently favouring Britain and not only because of China-US tensions. They were also attracted by Britain’s shorter schooling period to achieve master’s and doctoral degrees, as well as the friendlier immigration experience.

Britain’s popularity as a study destination was boosted by the reintroduction of its graduate route post-study work visas which allow international students to live and work in Britain for up two years after completing a Master’s, or three years after a PhD.

Duan said the longer post-study leave period for foreign students in Britain was another attraction for her to study there in the autumn. After sifting through invitations from universities in Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden, she decided to enrol with Imperial College London.

“I believe the Imperial College London’s academic performance is as good as those top schools in the US and it can also offer me plenty of opportunities, although it is not my dream school,” she said.

Zancy Duan cares for an elephant while volunteering in Thailand. Photo: Handout

Duan said many Chinese students felt horrified by the American measures “issued one by one since last year”.

These included US President Donald Trump’s proposal to limit job opportunities for international graduates from American universities, and a bill raised by Republican senators to prohibit Chinese nationals from receiving visas to study in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and maths.

For Duan, it is highly likely that, even if she applied for a visa to study in the US, she would be rejected because her major – material science – is among those on the “sensitive” list which are subject to visa restrictions, she said.

Fuelling the insecurity for Chinese students over their legal status in the US was last week’s announcement by the government that foreign students whose universities were only teaching online must leave the country, and that no visa would be issued to those enrolled in such schools.

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This caused an outcry among the foreign students community in the US. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) took the Trump administration to court, describing the decision as “dangerous” and arguing it would create chaos for universities and international students.

In the face of wide opposition, the US government earlier this week withdrew the controversial visa rule.

Duan, who has just finished her undergraduate programme in Taiwan, said that pursuing her master’s or PhD degree in the US was always a dream because she regarded it as the world’s academic centre for science majors.

But her positive impression of the country has been affected by the way the US has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s such a pity that I have been admitted by a prestigious American university but I have to forgo it,” she said.


US colleges face US$15 billion hit as Chinese students stay away amid coronavirus pandemic

US colleges face US$15 billion hit as Chinese students stay away amid coronavirus pandemic

Kim Wang, a consultant at Shanghai-based overseas study agency Timespin, said there had been a big increase in the past two years of students applying for multiple countries – choosing Canada, Britain and Australia as well as the US.

“The applicants to British universities have surged greatly and Singaporean universities have received more attention over the past two years,” she said. “This means the competition is much fiercer than before and British schools are stricter in checking application materials.”

An agent from JJL Overseas Study, a Beijing-based agency, said many American universities, fearing international students had lost interest in them, had loosened admission requirements. “Some top schools decided in early July they didn’t need GRE scores for international students applying for their MPA programmes,” said the agent, surnamed Wu.

“So for students who will start their university life in fall of next year, I suggest they consider more than one country in order to avert risks,” Wu said. “But many people are not aware that there are high chances of being enrolled by the best American universities [if they apply in the second half of this year].”

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Ivor Emmanuel, director of University of California Berkeley’s international office, said it was too soon to know if there had been any decline in Chinese student enrolments.

“We will know after the start of the school year in late August if there is any observable decline in Chinese student enrolment. Then, too, it will not be clear to us what would be a direct link to that decline,” he said.

Columbia University was looking forward “with great enthusiasm” to the continued presence of Chinese students across its many degree programmes and schools, a spokeswoman said, describing them as “essential to fostering a global exchange of ideas at Columbia and our pursuit of knowledge”.

“To that end, we have strongly opposed policies of the US government that would make it harder for international students and scholars to attend our university. The mix of in-person, hybrid, and online course offerings that are being developed for the fall will be tailored to meet the needs of Chinese and other international students to the maximum extent possible.”


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In an opinion article published by The New York Times on Tuesday, the president of MIT L. Rafael Reif forcefully underscored that international scholars were vital to American innovation and competitiveness, and cautioned that it was “misguided policy” to signal foreign students should stay away.

Earlier this year, Reif also testified that attracting top talent was essential and said “foreign students who receive a US doctorate should immediately be given a green card to settle in the US.” He also warned against anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Although MIT publishes the overall number of international students that applied and were admitted to each class, it does not break those numbers down by country. MIT has indicated that the size of the incoming first-year undergraduate class is to date comparable to previous years.

Zhu Huaixin, a comparative education expert from the College of Education at Zhejiang University, said the shift from American universities to those in other countries would be detrimental for nurturing China’s talent as there were not so many top schools elsewhere as in the US.

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According to this year’s QS World University Rankings report, 46 of the top 200 universities are in the US. “There is a gap between the overall quality of American universities and those in Britain, Canada or Australia,” Zhu said.

“We Chinese universities treat our American counterparts as the standard and have been learning from them. A high percentage of professors and experts in many fields in China are returnees from graduating from American universities.”

Some Chinese students, who fled back to China when the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the West, are now eager to return to their schools for the new semester in September.

Amy Gu, a student from Shanghai who graduated from Cass Business School in London this summer, said she plans to apply for a British visa so she can return to the country at the end of September to start her postgraduate school life.

Amy Gu at Hyde Park in London. Photo: Handout

She returned to China in March when Britain’s Covid-19 cases were surging by thousands every day. Gu has been accepted at several postgraduate programmes in Britain but has not yet made her final decision.

The numbers of new daily Covid-19 cases have been declining in Britain, with an average of roughly 700 new cases this week, compared to its high of 6,000 new cases in a single day in May. In total, Britain has reported about 300,000 coronavirus patients, ranked the 9th in the world.

However, Gu said she was not worried about that at this stage. “I will wear masks when going outside, keep social distancing rules and wash my hands frequently. That should be fine,” she said.