By WES Staff
In the last decade, the number of Chinese students studying abroad has grown exponentially, to the point that most major education-exporting countries now welcome more Chinese students than any other nationality. At the end of 2010, there were a total of 1.27 million Chinese students studying abroad (up 24 percent from 2009), according to recently released figures from the Ministry of Education . However the traffic is by no means one way, with large numbers of foreign students now attending Chinese institutions of higher education and with Chinese students returning home to their booming domestic economy in record numbers.
In 2007, the Chinese government estimated the number of returning graduate students from abroad to be approximately 44,000, a drop in the bucket when compared to the millions that have left to study abroad since the 1980s, but certainly an uptick on previous years. By 2010, the number of returnees had risen even more significantly to approximately 135,000.
At this point, it is unclear if this growth trend is a short-term reflection of the health of China’s economy versus economies in the West or a longer-term shift in the ambitions of internationally mobile Chinese students. In the past many Chinese students have viewed an overseas education as a means of establishing job and life prospects in the West. However, more recent trends suggest that those same students are now viewing an overseas education as just that, an education.
Considering the ever-increasing number of Chinese students travelling abroad to study, it seems fair to assume that foreign credentials still hold significant caché in China, but given the growing return rate, it would also seem fair to assume that the booming Chinese economy has changed Chinese perspectives on how best to leverage those credentials.
Teaching Foreign Students
The story of eastward bound academic mobility in the current decade is by no means about returning Chinese students alone. Indeed, the Chinese government has been promoting  the Chinese language and culture abroad through a network of global institutes  since 2004. At the end of 2010, there were 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius Classrooms in 96 countries and regions around the world. In 2009, the global network offered 9,000 Chinese courses with a total enrollment of 260,000, 100 percent growth from the year prior.
Matching growth in overseas instruction through the Confucius institutes, domestic Chinese institutions have also been welcoming record numbers of foreign students. According to the Ministry of Education, there were 265,090 international students attending Chinese institutions of higher education in 2010, growth of 330 percent in a decade. By contrast, India welcomed just 22,000 international students in 2009.
By some estimates, this latest overseas enrollment figure ranks China as the sixth most popular study destination in the world after the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Germany. If the government’s goal of recruiting 500,000 students by 2020 under its Study in China  initiative is met, then China will more than likely become one of the world’s top three study destinations by the end of the decade.
International Students at Chinese Institutions of Education
|Year||Number of Students|
Source: Ministry of Education
The top five countries of origin in 2010 were South Korea, the United States, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam. However, it should be noted that just 40 percent of students were in China studying full degree programs while the remaining 60 percent (157,658 students) were pursuing language or other non-degree programs – a much higher percentage than in most receiving countries.
Chinese Students in the United States
According to data  from the Institute for International Education , China became the number source of foreign students at U.S. institutions of higher education in 2009/10, surpassing India, which held that position for most of the last decade. Growth has been particularly strong at the undergraduate level in recent years. By comparison, growth in Indian student numbers at U.S. institutions of higher education has tapered off in 2009 and 2010.
Chinese Students at US Institutions of Higher Education
|Year||Number of Students from China||Number of Students from India|
Source: Institute for International Education
Chinese Students in the United Kingdom
China has long been the top source of international students for British institutions of higher education, with India sending the second-largest cohort.
Chinese and Indian Students at British Institutions of Higher Education
|Year||Number of Students from China||Number of Students from India|
Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency
Chinese Students in France
Despite French colonial and linguistic ties to the Maghreb region of North Africa and also the countries of West Africa, China now outranks all countries but Morocco with regards to enrollments at French institutions of higher education. China displaced Algeria for second place in 2006. If current enrollment trends continue, China will soon be the number one source of international students in France.
Chinese and Moroccan Students in French Higher Education
|Year||Number of Students from China||Number of Students from Morocco|
Chinese Students in Australia
The figures below  are from the Department of Education , which counts Malaysia as the second largest source of international students. Other sources, most notably Australia Education International , count India as the second largest source of students. However, what is undisputed is that China sends by far the most students to Australian institutions of higher education.
Chinese and Malaysian Students in Australian Higher Education
|Year||Number of Students from China||Number of Students from Malaysia|
Source: Department of Education
Chinese Students in Germany
China assumed the position as the top sender of international students to German institutions of higher education in 2005, and has retained that position despite a slight drop in enrollments since 2006. It should also be noted that the vast majority of Turkish enrollments (the second largest source of foreign students) are from among Turks already resident in Germany.
Chinese and Turkish Students in German Higher Education
|Year||Number of Students from China||Number of Students from Turkey|
Source: Wissenschaft Weltoffen 
Clearly China has become an incredibly important player in the realm of international education. The perception by universities and education officials in the West of China as a source of academic talent and tuition income is rapidly changing. Not only is China welcoming a growing number of overseas students, but it is also luring back top academic talent from prestigious graduate schools around the world, especially in the fields of science and technology.
While concerns over the quality and capacity of the Chinese system of higher education will continue to push Chinese students overseas in the short term, the longer-term picture appears less clear. The government continues to allocate considerable resources to improving quality standards at the nation’s best universities and is now starting to prove successful in bringing back overseas-educated academics to properly staff them.
With the current dominance of the Chinese economy, it seems likely that the country will continue to attract overseas students in large numbers while also retaining a higher percentage of its best talent.