The international education market may feel some chill this year, because the COVID-19 pandemic, sluggish global economy and unpredictable international situation have prompted many Chinese students to reconsider their decision to study abroad.
The number of Chinese students studying abroad and the amount of money they spend have made China one of the biggest contributors to the international education market. According to the Institute of International Education, a US-based NGO, about 5.3 million international students received higher education around the world in 2019, with China accounting for more than 0.7 million, or the largest group, among them.
Chinese students studying abroad, many of whom choose Western developed countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia as their destination, have generated huge revenues for these economies. For instance, in the 2018-19 academic year, more than one third of the international students in the US were from China and contributed about $14.9 billion to the US economy, according to the IIE's 2019 Open Doors Report.
So how badly will the pandemic hit the international education market? And will Chinese students change their destination countries?
Some US experts say the pandemic will have a temporary and limited impact on international education, as the health crisis will eventually peter out and the international education market, despite suffering a big blow in the short term, may soon return to normal with China still accounting for the largest group of international students. But the number of international students could drop and their preferred overseas destinations could change with the US' appeal likely to decline.
Chinese families' decision to send their children to study abroad will be determined by their incomes, the pandemic's overall impact on the world and international relations. The pandemic, many economists say, will cause a downturn in the global economy. This in turn will reduce the earnings of many well-off and working-class Chinese families that account for the majority of students seeking overseas education. As a result, fewer families may send their children to study abroad.
The pandemic may also prompt many families to change the overseas destinations for their children's education. For example, universities in countries that have effectively contained the virus such as Canada and New Zealand may see more applications from Chinese students while countries that have not responded well to the outbreak like the US and the UK may become less attractive.
International relations are another factor that will influence the decision of Chinese parents and students, as they would prefer to study in countries friendly to China. And since the US has implemented a series of discriminatory policies against Chinese students such as stricter reviews and visa restrictions, the number of Chinese students seeking admission to US universities could drop sharply in the coming years.
Given that the world has undergone major changes this year, 2019 could well mark the peak year for Chinese students studying abroad. Given that global economic recovery will take time, international education will turn into a buyer's market with fiercer competition to attract overseas students. Accordingly, Chinese universities will face both opportunities and challenges to get a bigger share of the international education market.
By resuming economic activities after having largely contained the virus, China has become more competitive in attracting overseas students. Also, the quality of higher education in China has been improving, rising up on several authoritative international university ranking lists. In fact, China is the third-largest destination for foreign students, with more that 70 percent of them coming from developing countries. Yet Chinese campuses still lack top talents when compared with world-class universities in the West.
Quality is always king. To seize the opportunity offered by the changing global situation, Chinese universities should elevate their teaching and graduation standards to the international level, for instance, by raising the proportion of bilingual and English courses and promoting cultural and educational exchanges with top global universities and academic institutions, in order to attract more foreign students. They should also improve the quality of the joint schools and institutes they run in partnership with foreign universities so they can keep top Chinese students on Chinese campuses.
As for Chinese students, they should realize it's not rational to blindly follow the trend of studying abroad. After years of enjoying the advantages of overseas education, foreign-returned graduates have started losing their competitive edge in the job market. Therefore, Chinese families should decide to send their children abroad for studies only after considering all the pros and cons.
But despite international education becoming a profitable business, especially in English-speaking countries, the trend of students seeking education abroad will not change. As such, students should improve their academic performance, including language skills, before choosing to study abroad.
In February, the Ministry of Education increased enrollments to postgraduate courses by 189,000 for this year. In addition to Europe and North America, destinations in Asia such as Singapore, Japan and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region also offer high quality education. In a way, the changing global situation has created more choices for Chinese students seeking higher education.
The author is a lecturer at the School of Foreign Languages, Hubei University, and also a PhD candidate at the School of Education, Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.