Chinese students study overseas options as Covid controls come down

Large numbers of foreign students are expected to stream back into China as Covid restrictions ease.

After three years of pandemic controls that limited academic exchanges between China and the rest of the world, students have begun making plans to study abroad again.

With China’s zero-Covid policy dismantled, more Chinese students are looking abroad to further their education. And with strict quarantine rules ended, foreign students are expected to stream back into China, analysts said.

“Chinese study abroad will see a recovery [this] year after many obstacles are removed,” said Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG), a Beijing-based think tank.

From January 8, limits on the number of international passenger flights to China will be lifted, and arriving travellers will no longer need to quarantine.

The visa application process for foreigners coming to China for study or business is expected to be less troublesome, according to new policies announced by the State Council last week.

“During the pandemic, some parents worried that their kids would be infected if they went abroad and the visa processing [was troublesome], but now the obstacles will be removed and the flight tickets will be affordable. The number of people studying overseas will return to normal levels,” Wang said.

Since the start of the pandemic, many Chinese students have had to either postpone or cancel plans to study abroad over fears of contracting Covid-19, difficulties in visiting home, and worries about anti-Asian discrimination, according to a report by Shanghai-based media outlet Sixth Tone.

The number of primary and secondary Chinese students going abroad for school would increase in 2023 after their parents delayed those plans over pandemic worries, said a consultant, surnamed An, at overseas study consultancy EIC Education.

“I am not sure whether the whole market will improve, but for minors whose parents have been worried about their situation and not in a rush to send them out, but turning to domestic international schools [instead], I believe they will be considering sending them out after the recent policy [change],” she said.

The United Kingdom has surpassed the United States to become the destination of choice over the past three years, due to its favourable visa and employment policies, said the consultant, who works with clients who intend to study in the UK.

Other consultants remained cautious about whether 2023 would be a boom year for the market.

Qiao Xiangdong, head of Beijing Gewai Education Consulting, said economic factors are more important than Covid-19 policy when it comes to deciding to study overseas.

“The economy is not good, and the willingness to go abroad will be affected or shift to other options … especially [for] the middle class which has hesitated, and those hugely affected by the pandemic,” Qiao said.

“The market will keep a downturn for a while, and it depends on the cycle of economic recovery,” he said, adding that it is difficult to produce a simple answer since some people are more determined to go abroad than others.

Sherry, a 22-year-old who is considering studying in the UK, said that she is determined to go abroad after three years of strict pandemic control measures in China.

“One factor is the political reason, which everybody knows, that it makes people feel frustrated and numb,” she said.

Sherry said the domestic economy is also a factor in her decision to study abroad, citing the high numbers of lay-offs in China.

Increasingly tense diplomatic relationships between China and some Western countries also appear to be a factor in how Chinese students choose their education destinations.

The number of Chinese studying in the US in the 2021-22 academic year dropped by 9 per cent compared with the previous year, despite a strong year-over-year rebound in new international student enrolments (an increase of 80 per cent), according to data from the Open Doors 2022 Report on International Educational Exchange in November.

China is the world’s largest source of overseas students, with nearly 1 million students at foreign higher education institutions, according to a report released by the think tank CCG in September.

It cited “changes in the international situation” as a factor that had impacted whether Chinese studied in the US and Australia or chose other options in Europe and Asia.

Ethan Rosenzweig, an official at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State, said that recruitment in China would be prioritised and US universities would continue to value Chinese students.

Meanwhile, there could be a large increase in the number of foreigners studying in China over the next few years, after Beijing authorities lifted strict inbound Covid-19 control measures.

Wang Huiyao said the number of foreigners going to China to study will see a “huge rebound,” surpassing pre-pandemic levels, which had averaged about 500,000 students a year.

Only 382 US students studied in China in the 2020-21 academic year, due mainly to the pandemic, according to Peggy Blumenthal, a senior counsellor at the Independent Institute of Education.