How the Pandemic Transformed China’s International Applicants

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, China reported over 490,000 international students from 196 countries studying on the Chinese mainland, just behind the US, UK, and Canada. Yet the country’s border closures, among the strictest in the world, have locked the majority of these students outside the mainland for the past two years.

As the pandemic, and China’s response to it, have evolved, the personas and groups of students applying to study in Chinese universities have significantly shifted. We estimate there are less than 20,000 international students in China now, less than 5% than before.

Pre-pandemic, international students were drawn by China’s cultural opportunities and scholarship offers. Post-pandemic, international applicants still willing to apply to China are driven by personal motivations in four main trends: Overseas Chinese, Education-Focused, Scholarship, and Career Focused.

Pre-Pandemic Trends

China presented an attractive study option for a variety of reasons: unique culture, affordable tuition, highly ranked universities, English education, and the opportunity to learn Chinese. China also stands out as a scholarship provider. Through the Chinese Government Scholarship and other funders, students from developing countries or low-income backgrounds were able to obtain a quality education for extremely affordable costs.

This cocktail of affordability and value combined to attract unique categories of students. Pre-pandemic, we noted several unique categories of international students applying to Chinese universities.

Meet the Students – 5 Types of Students Applying to Chinese Universities

Belt and Road (BRI) students, primarily from Asian/African countries, were heavily courted by China and offered exclusive scholarship opportunities. Young BRI students ages 18-23 sought out Bachelors programs in practical subjects such as business, engineering, or medicine. Older BRI students at the Masters or PhD level primarily pursued scholarships in order to significantly improve their life at home with a higher degree and greater earning potential.

Pre-2020, Chinese university heavily attracted “Experience”-seeking students: Young and moderately wealthy, this group was most interested in short-term exciting cultural experiences. We assisted this group to apply to short-term Chinese language programs, summer courses, or semesters abroad. Chinese universities in turn offered increasingly unique and flexible programs catering to this young, enthusiastic student base.

Data sourced from MOE and Joyce Lau

 

There is a misconception that the majority of foreign students studying abroad in China are on scholarship. Actually, scholarship students only make up 65,000 of the total number of students in China. In 2018/2019, 87% of foreign students in China were self-funded.

Pandemic Impact on Students

There is no publicly available data on how many foreign students live in China since 2018, on how many foreign students remain physically in China, or how many have dropped/transferred between 2020-2022. Our platform has become the leading source of information  for international students worldwide to check the status of the border (Daily Updates Here) or to check which universities are still open to international applicants (Program Database Here).

We have frequently been featured in international media such as here and here.

International students who left China at the beginning of the pandemic (Jan-March 2020) were suddenly barred from entering the country even on valid student visas, and new students have largely been unable to obtain visas for entry. The consequences to student life have been enormous. Courses that depend on in-person work, especially fields like medicine, engineering, and other sciences, had to move entirely online. This severely limited the quality and value of the degrees for international students. For example, without medical practicals, Indian students are not able to even complete their degrees, resulting in suspended limbo.

Due to the disbursement conditions of Chinese scholarships, which may include limits on how much money could be sent out of the country or to foreign bank accounts, scholarship recipients located outside of China experienced difficulty in receiving their scholarship funds. This had an adverse effect on students’ ability to support themselves financially while outside of China.

The largest impact upon students over the past two years has been a severe emotional and mental toll. Cut off from the university community of classmates their age, lack of a clear plan for their return, and inability to engage university life to fullest resulted in extreme difficulties for the student community. Students outside of Asia often had to wake up in the middle of the night to take their courses.

In the short term, it is clear that the pandemic had a substantial negative impact on China’s impression as a study abroad destination. The number of foreign students able to enter China has slowed to a trickle. In one survey organized by the student advocacy group China International Student Union, “Almost half of students would not recommend China as a study destination.”

Our 3 Objectives During COVID

Through all of this, we have 3 key objectives:

  • We are here to support international students. We are doing our best to provide accurate information so students can make the best decisions.
  • To support our university partners to attract students who are going to be successful.
  • To share the knowledge and help bridge and connect people between China and the world.

Pandemic Trends

During the pandemic, our analysis and engagement with students looks very different. The unique situations of the pandemic have entirely altered the landscape of international students applying to Chinese universities.

Pre-pandemic, China offered dozens of convincing “pull” factors to draw international students. Post-pandemic, a series of significant “push” factors have combined to restrict or block certain groups of students entirely.

Pull factors drawing students to study in China, Push factors blocking or limiting students from studying in China.

The students applying to study in China have been heavily impacted and reduced. The two that have been most affected are the experience and scholarship students.first and most significant group of students who are no longer interested in applying to study in China are the “Experience” students. This group is not able to enter China for short-term programs, and prohibitive quarantine times, periodic lockdowns in major Chinese cities, and high flight costs are further dissuading this group from studying in China. Until traveling into China is at least as convenient as Pre-Pandemic travel, we do not anticipate this group will return to prominence any time soon. They have turned to other exciting short-term destinations that are generally closer to home – such as in Central America, Europe, or Southeast Asia.

This group aside, we are still observing a significant number of students who are applying to study in Chinese universities. These groups primarily have much stronger and more focused motivations to study in China, and they may view the Push factors as easier or more worthwhile to deal with.

They fall into four categories:

  • Overseas Chinese Students
  • Education-Focused Students
  • Scholarship Students
  • Career Focused Students

Overseas Chinese Students are the strongest group of students that remain.

These students have the most personal motivation to study in Chinese universities, and they may already have previous living experience in China or have family living there. They may aspire to live in China after graduating, repatriating to their ancestral country. If the student has an existing family (parents or a spouse) in China, they may try to enter China on a family visa as well. They have the strongest demand and willingness to apply and get enrolled. Family and linguistic connections sustain their interest and involvement in China. The Pull factors are the strongest for them.

Education-focused students are a unique category that has grown visible during the pandemic. As China’s importance on the world stage has heightened throughout the 2020s, these students are high-performing and understand the value of China knowledge and an elite degree to their future careers. They may aspire to work in government, international businesses, or enter academia with unique expertise on China-related issues. They are interested in universities like Peking or Tsinghua, and have already strategized their future career aspirations. These students will redirect themselves to study a powerful degree from elite universities elsewhere in the world, such as the US or the UK. With the loss of research opportunities and intensive study in China, their ambition is directed elsewhere for now.

Scholarship students have remained a constant application group since before the pandemic. Despite the border closures, China still represents the best educational option at the cheapest price point for them. However, due to the extreme costs of returning to China, this group of students will suffer financially with the current flight/quarantine prices. This group will be open and attracted to other affordable and good quality university options around Asia, such as Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, or Malaysia. The biggest barrier for these students remains the difficulty/impossibility to receive scholarship funds outside of China. Many will be interested in transferring or applying to low-cost destinations near or in their home country. Our university transfer service can help Scholarship students transfer into similarly-priced universities elsewhere in the world.

Finally, Career-Focused Students have made calculated risks during the pandemic that a Chinese degree and Mandarin proficiency will pay off in a fruitful career at home. Their country already has growing business or cultural ties with China, and they may take advantage of opportunities to intern or work for a Chinese company in their home country. If they choose to study in other countries, they will still be interested in learning Chinese.  These students have primarily turned to other destinations as well. Ukraine was popular, but Europe, Malaysia and other Asian countries are of greater interest to this group now. They are looking for affordable universities, but will still have an interest in learning Chinese online.

A batch of Sri Lankan students flying to China, one of the few permitted student groups.

What’s Next for International Students?

At the moment, only a small number of international students have been able to return to China. We are tracking daily information and updates for international students here: When can international students go to China?

Through the recent launch of our sister company Global Admissions, we are now offering even more opportunities to international students who are currently enrolled in Chinese universities or deciding on whether to apply.

Until China’s border opens more completely to international students, and until the costs of returning to China drop to affordable levels, we believe these four main categories of students and their driving interests have been severely disrupted.

In the long term, China remains a regional leader in Asian higher education. However, the closed border and high costs of return flights/quarantine will severely limit the students who are willing and able to apply to Chinese universities. 

Opportunities remain for Chinese universities and China Admissions to promote clear communication with international students, offer unique online programs, and increase the quality of online offerings. 

In the short term, the future remains very uncertain, and this uncertainty has severely impacted students who rely on certainty to make educational plans. The future development of this sector will rely on a few key factors:

  • China’s Covid Policy. The evolution of this policy will have the greatest impact upon the international student market in China. Shortened quarantine times, decreased costs of flights, and increased numbers of new student visas being granted will have net positive effects. However, we have no idea about what the next steps of this policy will be. 
  • From what we have seen, opening up will be extremely gradual, and may take many months or years. Students so far have been able to return in extremely limited batches after months of negotiations at the government level. 
  • It is possible that the policy will change rapidly to allow students, or we may never see a return to the pre-pandemic numbers of international students studying in China. 
  • Chinese universities are increasingly forging their own path in higher education: building their own priorities, values, and educational benchmarks that do not follow the path of any other country. China is not looking to develop like the USA and UK by focusing on rankings and international student numbers. Chinese universities will value student quality over quantity, with an increased emphasis on learning Chinese language and values. There is a focus on building unique Chinese-style world class universities.
Covid tests administered to residents of Shanghai, China.
Savannah Billman has a master's degree in Chinese Law and Society at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. She holds a B.A. from NYU Shanghai and has also written for The World of Chinese, TechNode, SupChina, and Sixth Tone.
Savannah Billman
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