Du Jinxiu is only 16, but she knows exactly what she wants — to go to university overseas after she finishes secondary school in China.
“I am going to study actuarial science at Wharton Business School,” says the girl, one of 30 in a special class created by Shijiazhuang’s No 42 Middle School, for those who want to study abroad.
Jiao Bowen, one of her classmates, has his sights set on film school in Los Angeles, while Li Ying is determined to study in the UK because she loves Pride and Prejudice.
The Communist party is preparing to hand its leadership reins to a group of men who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when higher education was demonised and exchanges with the west were cut. But now, just as the top echelons of the party battle over whether to continue down a path of reform, China’s youth are voting with their feet and getting western educations in rapidly rising numbers, possibly setting the stage for a fundamental shift in values as they return home.
Over the past two years, 620,000 Chinese have gone abroad to study, which is more than a quarter of the total number who have studied overseas since the start of China’s reform policies in 1978.
China’s overseas student body has traditionally been dominated by only the very best, who have chosen to study as undergraduates at China’s top universities before doing postgraduate studies abroad. The latest data from the Council of Graduate Schools, released on Tuesday, showed an 18 percent increase in those applying to US graduate schools in 2012 compared to last year.
But the number of undergraduates heading abroad is rising far more rapidly. Those going to the US soared 43 percent last year, according to the Institute of International Education.
Many Western universities have greeted Chinese students as a welcome new source of revenue, writes Kathrin Hille in Beijing .
In the US, especially many state universities, struggling with shrinking public funds, have stepped up international marketing and targeted China as one of the most important markets.
“The Chinese are attractive not just because there are so many but also because they are ready to pay their own way through university,” says an official at Education USA, the educational services bureau at the state department.
China has become the largest source of international students for the US, the UK, Canada and Australia with Chinese students generating $2.5 billion in revenues every year, according to Grok China, an education consultancy.
For Canada, revenues derived from Chinese students — including fees and spending — now exceed those from any other area of trade with China including big-ticket natural resource products, according to the Canadian government.
But many universities are now starting to wonder how to balance the economic benefits with the goal to have a diverse balance of nationalities.
“Five years ago, we had just three or four Chinese students among our 150 international students, and now Chinese account for one-third of our international students,” says Jim Miller, director of admission and enrollment services at University of Wisconsin-Superior. “We don’t want it to rise to 50 percent.”
“Most, if not all, of the Chinese students who came here a few decades ago were the academic elite, but it has now broadened a lot,” says Jeffry Petrucci, an associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
China’s one-child policy has left many families with the savings of two pairs of grandparents to spend on their grandchildren. Meanwhile, only very few do well enough to follow the historical path into China’s top schools such as Tsinghua University, Beijing’s equivalent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Overseas education, now more affordable for many, is an increasingly preferred Plan B.
“The west is the second-best path to successful life by their metrics,” says Kim Morrison, principal partner at Grok China, a higher education consultancy.
Shijiazhuang is a case in point. The industrial city of 2.6 million south of Beijing is neither cosmopolitan nor an exceptionally wealthy or academic center. But No 42 Middle School is now marketing itself as a springboard to a college education abroad.
“Last year, 10 percent of our graduating class of 600 went abroad to study,” says Li Yaqing, the school’s principal.
Du Liru, the father of Jinxiu, says he was initially vehemently opposed to his daughter’s Wharton aspirations. “We thought America is not a place for a Chinese girl to go, let alone by herself. But then, times have changed, and it looks like she is quite smart.”
For many Chinese students, adapting to a new life in the west is difficult. Used to a school system which emphasizes rote learning, they often struggle to participate in class discussions, and don’t socialize with their western peers.
“I think it’s a race thing,” says Yu Ziwen, a first-year mathematics student at the University of Washington. “In a conversation, Americans might use references to American history [that] I don’t know about and I’m not interested in, so I would rather hang out with Chinese friends.”
A survey of Chinese alumni from UK universities conducted by Nottingham, Birmingham and Tsinghua universities found that Chinese students rarely find western friends at university, partly because they feel uncomfortable when their European classmates openly talk about sex or invite them to go clubbing. And yet, most of them feel that their few years abroad change their lives forever.
“Chinese live in a monocultural context, and studying abroad helps them first understand that and then discover commonalties with people from other cultures,” says Qing Gu, one of the authors of the alumni study. Her research has shown that many young Chinese become more critical of their own country after returning from university overseas.
For Zheng-Yang Shuting, who studied at Edinburgh and now teaches English in Beijing, that is certainly true. “The more people go abroad and take a look themselves like I did, the more China’s relations with the outside world will normalize.”