Despite continued investment in improving academic institutions at home, the Chinese still flock in their hundreds of thousands to universities abroad (with the US, the UK and Canada as the top three destinations). For the academic year 2010-2011, the Institute of International Education and the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs stated that there were 157,558 Chinese students at American institutions putting China in first place ahead of India with 103, 895 students and South Korea with 73,351 students.
Conversely China, according to the Scholarship Council, currently attracts a little less than 300,000 foreign students (2011) form 194 countries, just over a third of these studying non-language courses. It aims to increase this number to just under half a million by 2020.
Despite their concerns over Western value and morality, Chinese leaders still prefer to send their children overseas to purse higher education. China’s presumed next president Xi Jinping has sent his daughter to Harvard and even the disgraced Party official Bo Xialai sent his supposed ‘playboy’ son Bo Guagua to a series of expensive British and American educational institutions. According to a joint report released by China Citic Bank and China's Central University of Finance and Economics, approximately 23 percent of rich Chinese households (those with personal assets of 10 million RMB or $1.48 million) sent their children overseas to further their education. As the middle class continue to grow wealthier, and the academic institutions of the West continue to grow hungrier for income, we will likely see even higher numbers of Chinese students head abroad.
What’s driving this temporary diaspora? Well, the Chinese have long aspired to an overseas education. A foreign qualification has been seen as a way of differentiating oneself from the masses of Chinese graduates that stream out onto the job market every year. Being educated overseas was often seen as a guaranteed path towards a lucrative, highly paid and prestigious position back in the Middle Kingdom.
The most prestigious universities around the world (think Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford) have long been recognized for their academic excellence, but what is less talked about are the social advantages available for Chinese graduates. Not only do they build a network with other countries’ political and economic elite , they also gain an affiliation to a prestigious and globally renowned university name that acts as a status symbol, just as the Bentley in the garage does.
A notable side effect of the hunger for overseas education is that since the early part of this decade, the country has witnessed the establishment of foreign universities in partnership with Chinese ones. Among others, two of the most successful ventures have been The University of Nottingham in Ningbo, and the Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University. There are also an increasing number of American universities partnering with their Chinese equivalents to offer joint programmes and Duke and New York University are in fact building Shanghai campuses.
Along side these, project 985 was established by Zhang Zemin in the late 90`s which gave additional funding to an initial nine universities to achieve the goal of China having a number of internationally elite universities: Fudan University (Shanghai), Harbin Institute of Technology, Nanjing University, Peking University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Tsinghua University, Xian Jiaotong University and Zhejiang University.
Despite their apparent success (Harvard’s Senior Executive Programme in Shanghai is just one example), joint ventures require that local and foreign universities blend their core competencies’ and are as such a compromise-prone model. They are often seen as a pale imitation of the “real” institution, carrying the same steep price tag, but less academic rigor and therefore less status. The lack of full time staff from the parent university (most only want to spend a term away from home) has caused many to undervalue these institutions in China.
Leading post-graduate programs include CEIBS (www.ceibs.edu) and Tsinghua University’s MBA (www.sem.tsinghua.edu.cn/portalweb/appmanager/portal/MBAen ). Another model that is not uncommon is the BiMBA program offered by Peking University (www.en.bimba.edu.cn). Here one of China’s most prestigious institutions has partnered with one of Europe’s best managements schools (Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School) to deliver a program in Beijing by Western and Chinese professors.
So while the numbers of Western university campuses will continue to increase in China, it’s unlikely that we will see any slowdown of Chinese students heading overseas any time soon. This is probably no bad thing. Not only will these students broaden their academic and social horizons by experiencing life in different cultures, they will also be able to develop the kind of thinking that China requires to be able to fulfil the targets of its latest five year plan.
This plan stated that China aims to invest some 5% of GDP on new ‘Green industries’: energy-saving and environmentally friendly technologies, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, and alternative-fuel cars. The development of such innovative sectors and China’s drive to move up the value chain and away from low cost manufacturing will require people who have had experience of new ways of working, thinking and playing that the current Chinese education system is currently still lacking.