Academic Mobility To and From China: A Look at the Numbers

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 [2]. 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 [3] the Chinese language and culture abroad through a network of global institutes [4] 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 [5] 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
2001 61,869
2002 85,829
2003 77,715
2004 110,844
2005 141,087
2006 162,695
2007 195,000
2008 223,499
2009 238,184
2010 265,090

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 [6] from the Institute for International Education [7], 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
2002/03 64,757 74,603
2003/04 61,765 79,736
2004/05 62,523 80,466
2005/06 62,582 76,503
2006/07 67,723 83,833
2007/08 81,127 94,563
2008/09 98,235 103,260
2009/10 127,628 104,897

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
2002/03 35,155 12,465
2003/04 47,740 14,625
2004/05 52,675 16,685
2005/06 50,755 19,205
2006/07 49,595 23,835
2007/08 45,355 25,905
2008/09 47,035 34,065
2009/10 56,990 38,500

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
2002 5,477 24,284
2003 10,665 29,504
2004 11,514 32,802
2005 14,316 29,859
2005/06 15,963 25,782
2006/07 22,452 32,129
2008/09 27,112 30,284
2009/10 29,053 31,522

Source:Campus France, [8]Ministry of Education [9]

Chinese Students in Australia

The figures below [10] are from the Department of Education [11], which counts Malaysia as the second largest source of international students. Other sources, most notably Australia Education International [12], 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
2004 40.589 28,527
2005 49,411 27,666
2006 54,860 27,952
2007 60,646 29,244
2008 66,494 31,135
2009 79,391 33,085

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
2002 9,109 23,640
2003 14,070 24,041
2004 20,141 24,114
2005 25,284 24,448
2006 27,129 22,553
2007 27,390 22,419
2008 25,479 21,404
2009 24,746 22,335

Source: Wissenschaft Weltoffen [13]


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.