More than half a million Chinese students studied abroad in 2015, but growth in outbound student numbers is slowing, the latest Ministry of Education statistics show. The annual Blue Book report also revealed that the number of students returning to China after studying abroad is on the rise.
The number of outbound students grew to 523,700 in 2015, bringing the number of Chinese students who have spent time studying overseas since the economic reform and opening-up of the country in 1978 to more than four million.
However, the year-on-year increase of 13.9%, though higher than 2014’s 11% growth, was notably lower than the 19.1% average annual growth over the last four decades.
The year-on-year increase of 13.9% was notably lower than the 19.1% average annual growth over the last four decades.
Slowing economic growth, shifts in the agency landscape, improved local education offerings, and a more challenging graduate jobs market “makes it tempting to predict market contraction”, but foreign study nevertheless “continues to be an attractive option”, commented Kim Morisson, CEO of Beijing-based market entry and intelligence firm Grok Global.
“A cooling economy in China may even strengthen the attraction for foreign study as families seek to ensure their child will be able to compete in an already competitive labour market, and as families seek to create options for immigration in the future,” she forecasted.
She added that study abroad can be particularly attractive for students whose national exam results would not qualify them for entry into China’s top tier institutions.
The report also showed that 409,100, or around four in five, of the students who studied abroad in the previous year had returned to China by the end of 2015.
The average age of these students, often referred to as sea turtles, in 2015 was 27 years old, and 60% were women, it said.
Drawing on a survey of around 25,000 new returnees, the report found that the most popular study destinations were the UK, the US, Australia, South Korea and Japan.
However, the popularity of study destinations depended on the level of study: the US attracted the most doctoral degree students (29%), followed by Japan (12.9%) and the UK (10%); whereas 21.3% of returning students with an undergraduate or specialist course studied in South Korea, followed by the UK (10.6%) and the US (9.6%).
The average time returning students reported spending overseas was just under two years.
When asked about their career expectations, nearly a third (30%) said they expected to work in the financial sector. Other popular options included working in education (9.9%), culture (7.8%), and software and IT services (6.7%).
“A foreign degree and foreign work experience remain excellent job credentials in China, but they are no longer an automatic guarantee of a great job”
Nearly half expected to forge careers in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzen, though this proportion of students looking to settle in major cities has fallen by 8% since the previous year.
As for where they would prefer to work, 29% of respondents said they expected to work in multinational companies. A further 20% expected to work in state-owned enterprises, and 17% in private companies.
Only 3.3% of the returning graduates surveyed said they intend to start their own business, though this proportion has increased by 1% compared to the previous year, the statistics show.
Career development, place of work and remuneration were the top factors alumni considered in the decision about what kind of organisation to work for, according to the report.
“A foreign degree and, especially, foreign work experience remain excellent job credentials in China, but they are no longer an automatic guarantee of a great job,” commented Morisson.
“A very important competitive differentiation for institutions is what they actually do to help prepare international students for their career, how they help their graduates secure good jobs both onshore and in their home country, and how well they can measure and market that aspect of their value proposition to the Chinese audience.”
Looking at study abroad since 1978, the report showed that the vast majority of returning students (81%) held master’s degrees, while a further 9% had doctoral degrees and 10% had undergraduate and specialist qualifications. Popular subjects included economics, management, engineering and law.