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Students during a class in southwest China’s Sichuan province. More Chinese parents are looking at regional neighbours such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia as candidates for their children’s secondary and tertiary education. Photo: Xinhua

Why are more Chinese parents enrolling children in Malaysia, Singapore schools?

  • Southeast Asia seen as alternative for overseas study, as Chinese parents look for easier route to quality education for their children
  • Factors such as cheaper fees for international schools, K-12 institutes affiliated to prestigious Western universities among considerations
In 2019, Jenny, a Shanghai-based mother, moved to Malaysia with her four-year-old daughter Miaomiao, determined to find a less stressful way to survive the educational rat race.

Living on the city’s fringes meant the family faced stiff competition and bureaucratic challenges to get Miaomiao into a good school located in the city centre. With an eye on getting the girl into a university in the West in the future, Jenny opted for another route.

She enrolled Miaomiao at IGB International School, a Kuala Lumpur-based private institute offering K-12 education focusing on the International Baccalaureate, a qualified programme for entry to higher education worldwide.

“I don’t want my kid to go through the extremely competitive process as early as elementary school,” said Jenny, who asked to use a pseudonym.

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Jenny’s experience is not uncommon. Many middle-class families in China have taken to moving abroad in search of educational opportunities for their children, seeing it as a way out of the gaokao – the country’s hyper-competitive university entrance exam – and the eventual rat race that has locked young people in endless competition without a breakthrough as they try to survive China’s cutthroat society.
Getting their children into Western universities is the ultimate goal for these parents, with some even eyeing citizenship – and its accompanying benefits – in the country of study. And Southeast Asia, with its international schools affiliated to a number of well-known Western universities, is the launch pad for those dreams.
“Almost all Chinese families consulting us are aiming for admission to Western universities,” said Jenson Zhang, founder of Vision Education, a Chiang Mai-based agency connecting Chinese students to international schools in Thailand.
Jenson Zhang (left), founder of Vision Education, a Chiang Mai-based agency connecting Chinese students to international schools in Thailand. Photo: Jenson Zhang
Beyond the traditional favourites of the United States, Canada and Australia, more Chinese parents are also looking at regional neighbours such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia as candidates for their children’s secondary and tertiary education.
“Many living in top-tier cities just want to leave the country, at least, for some time … [and] they are intrigued by what is available out there,” Jenny said, adding that she chose Malaysia for its “affordability and geographical proximity to China”. The IB programme would also help pave the way for Miaomiao’s admission to universities in Britain, Australia and Canada.

Why do Singapore and Malaysia view China more favourably than the US?

The wave hits at a time when the allure of studying in America has declined amid escalating geopolitical tensions and concerns such as gun violence and the US’ Covid-19 response, according to a 2022 report by New Oriental, a leading private academic service provider in China.

The report showed that quality of education and personal safety were the top two considerations for Chinese students when deciding the location for overseas study, whether at secondary or tertiary level. Only 30 per cent of respondents picked the US as their first choice this year, dropping from nearly 50 per cent in 2015.

The US issued only 31,055 F-1 student visas to Chinese nationals in the first half of 2022, down from 64,261 for the same period in 2019. That was partly a result of lukewarm enthusiasm from Chinese applicants due to growing Sino-US tensions.
Malaysia’s landmark Petronas Twin Towers (right) in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

Southeast Asian destinations gain ground

In contrast to the dwindling interest in US institutions, Southeast Asian destinations have gained ground as viable study locations for Chinese students. For instance, 19,202 Chinese students applied to study in Malaysia in 2021, government data showed, a sharp rise of more than 150 per cent from only 8,876 applicants the year before.

Cheaper school fees are among the reasons cited for the decision to move south. Jenny, for instance, said primary school tuition in Malaysia amounting to around 110,000 yuan (US$15,440) per year was half of what she would have paid for equivalent education in Shanghai.

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Thailand has also emerged as an affordable option because of its cheaper international school fees, which range from 40,000 to 80,000 yuan per year, according to Vision Education founder Zhang.

“We’re targeting families whose disposable income varies from 200,000 to 300,000 yuan per year,” Zhang said. “Comparatively speaking, international education in the US or UK would entail a bracket above 600,000 yuan per year.”

A research paper published by Kasetsart University in 2022 found that China has been the primary source of international students in Thailand since 2006, with that figure doubling within nine years from 5,611 in 2009 to 11,993 in 2019. This demographic represents more than 40 per cent of international students in Thailand.

The quality of tertiary education also plays a part. Jason Tan, an education professor from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said the city state’s universities ranking among the top tier in Asia and globally appealed to well-off families from China.

University Town on the campus of the National University of Singapore. Photo: Shutterstock

New Oriental’s 2022 report revealed that among 8,610 respondents aiming to study abroad, 14 per cent of them chose to study in Singapore, more than double the 6 per cent in 2015.

“Relative affordability as compared to the cost of US-based education at the same level, public safety, and cultural affinity – all of these factors have given the country a competitive advantage against [traditional Western] destinations,” he said.

Despite the relatively cheaper tuition in Singapore’s universities, international students are still expected to pay roughly S$2,000 (US$1,390) per month, according to Tan. For example, annual tuition at the National University of Singapore ranges from S$17,600 and S$20,600 for undergraduates, but top American or British institutions could charge international students between US$40,000 and US$50,000 per year.

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New Oriental’s report also pointed out that among the Chinese students planning to study abroad in 2022, 27 per cent of them are seeking overseas secondary education. The latest figure results from a rising trend that kicked off eight years ago, only interrupted by the pandemic in the past two years when travel was severely disrupted.

Since 2019, there have been more K-12 international schools in Singapore, according to Aaron Koh, an education professor with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Many are linked to prestigious institutions in the West – for instance, Singapore’s Dover Court International School is affiliated with the London-based brand, Nord Anglia Education, which also owns the British International School of Kuala Lumpur (BSKL).

These K-12 schools, viewed as a stepping stone for students to gain admission to top universities globally, represent a “presupposed social status” to many parents, says NTU’s Tan.

Mike O’Connor, principal of the British International School of Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Mike O’Connor

Restrictive policies on admission to top international schools in China and the rising cost of education also contributed to the increase of Chinese students in overseas international schools, said Dr Mike O’Connor, principal of BSKL.

“We’ve seen a steady rise in Chinese students throughout the school’s recent history,” O’Connor said. “Even before the pandemic, we received a large volume of inquiries from Chinese parents.”

BSKL is considered among Malaysia’s top private international schools. Yet, its annual tuition – 49,250 ringgit (US$10,620) for Kindergarten 1, to 100,700 ringgit for grade 12 students – is more affordable compared to the 250,000 yuan (US$35,080) to 300,000 yuan per year for grades 10-12 in China.

O’Connor expects more Chinese students to come to BSKL as the pandemic situation stabilises.

“We’ve witnessed increased inquiry traffic from China and educational agencies,” he said. “And the enrolment rate of Chinese students has soared more than 20 per cent in the 2022-23 school year.”

Passengers at Beijing Capital International Airport. Chinese parents are willing to move abroad to increase their children’s chances of being accepted into Western universities. Photo: EPA-EFE

Investing in the future

Many middle-class parents in China who have studied overseas are willing to invest in their children’s education to increase their chances of being accepted into Western universities, according to Chinese University professor Koh.

“For those who are professionals, small enterprise owners, university lecturers and so on, many of them fully understand what an internationally prominent degree could bring to their kids’ prospects in career advancement,” he said.

Besides a prestigious degree, parents like Vision Education’s Zhang and spouse Jing Chen also look to getting citizenship – and its accompanying benefits – in the country of study as a form of stability and a prelude to more opportunities.

Overseas study back on the agenda as Chinese parents shrug off Covid fears

The couple, who previously studied abroad, moved to Thailand with two-year-old Mia and eight-year-old Harvey in 2018. However, Thailand is not the final destination.

“Many [parents] chose [Thailand] simply due to the pending status of their immigration applications to Australia or Canada,” Zhang said.

To that end, the couple plan to obtain Canadian passports so that Mia and Harvey can study in Canadian universities.

The hope of their children benefiting from a Western education may help keep Chinese parents going, but some who moved to Thailand have found it tough to maintain a stable income, with the pandemic making things worse by disrupting livelihoods and businesses.

“Unlike Canada and Australia, Thailand is not an immigrant-oriented country,” Zhang said. “So many of them have to work illegally or seek opportunities via e-commerce and social media.”

Sean Li moved from Xi’an to Chiang Mai with his family in 2012. Photo: Sean Li

This was the case for Sean Li, who moved from Xi’an to Chiang Mai in 2012 with his wife and their two-year-old son, working in tourism services catered towards Chinese travellers in Thailand. The pandemic nearly wiping out the tourism sector pushed Li to become a YouTuber – interviewing Chinese diaspora, sharing tips for newcomers, and introducing business opportunities in Thailand.

Li also noted that families becoming separated is sometimes the price parents pay for pursuing more affordable Western-style education for their children.

“Divided families with fathers making money in China and mothers staying with the kids in Chiang Mai are pretty common. And this form of physical separation has caused long-term negative impacts on the children,” he said, adding that children adapting to a new environment usually lacked emotional support from their families.

Despite this, Li said Chinese parents like him were willing to do “everything we can” to ensure their children could study at prestigious Western universities.

Students at UC Berkeley in California. Photo: MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Migration wave ‘unlikely to end’

As more countries ease Covid-19 restrictions, international student markets have reacted positively to the changes. A June 2022 report by the Institute of International Education showed that 389 US institutions, or 65 per cents of respondents, reported an increase in international applicants for the 2022-23 academic year across all institutional types, up from 43 per cent a year ago.

Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the organisation responsible for operating application processes for British universities, also showed the number of Chinese applicants increased by 23 per cent year over year, reaching 28,930 in 2021. Statistics Canada data revealed a similar recovery for the country’s educational institutes.

Could this affect the trend of Chinese students pursuing education in the region? Chinese University professor Koh said it was unlikely, citing policy changes on the mainland as a critical cause for the wave of migration.

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Chinese lawmakers recently proposed trimming English-learning hours in school, which some interpret as an attempt to curtail Western influence. After sparking backlash online, the education ministry vowed to reject the proposal but insisted on “promoting Chinese culture”.

Koh said the reduced English hours would push middle-class parents to send their children abroad for study, with those turning to Southeast Asia for their children’s secondary education taking advantage of the prevalent use of English in Singapore and Malaysia and the affiliation with recognised educational brands worldwide.

“This will be a continuing trend because the Chinese government has introduced new policies that deter students from learning more English – cutting back English lessons instead of adding more – and unfriendly policies for international schools to thrive,” he said.