China: Can the World’s Top Source for International Students Become Its Leading Destination?

The staggering economic growth of China over the last three decades has transformed higher education around the globe. Year after year, the country’s newly minted middle class parents have been willing and able to send their children abroad, en masse, in search of the best degrees available. The speed with which these students have inundated the market have been stunning, and the campus impact often overwhelming. In 2016, a reported 544,500 Chinese students sought degrees abroad [1], up from 38,989 in 2000 [2] and on track to reach as many as 800,000 within five years [1] – at which point the great outpouring may finally begin to taper off.

More recently, China has embarked on an effort that could have an equally radical effect on global higher education: transforming itself from a non-entity as an international higher education destination into a major player. In 2012, China’s officials announced a goal of becoming an international education hub [3] with an enrollment of 500,000 international students by 2020.  If this plan is successful – and if the country established new, more ambitious goals – the impact on global student mobility, which encompasses an estimated 4.5 million [4] students from around the world as of 2012, is likely to be substantial. Even so, many observers remain skeptical about whether China can truly unseat traditional education destinations as a top draw for international students, arguing that it may simply become one node in an increasingly diverse, dynamic, and borderless higher education landscape.

This article examines the factors related to either outcome.

Factors in Favor of Chinese Dominance

In 2012, China’s officials announced a goal of becoming an international education hub [3], with a target enrollment of 500,000 international students at all levels of education by 2020. Since then it has  attracted hundreds of thousands of students from across Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. By almost any relevant measure, the country has made enormous progress against its goal, and appears poised to make even more. Consider:



These successive reform efforts have greatly improved the quality of higher education in China, and have in turn, made them an attractive option for international students. twelfth [12] Five-Year Plan inaugurated in 2011. This plan saw the government announce the goal of building up a technology-driven innovation economy [13], signaling an effort to gradually shift away from a labor-intensive manufacturing economy. As a result, STEM-related fields of study, especially basic science research [14], have received generous funding to cater to the country’s stress on technological development. Additionally, the government has been actively promoting and coordinating cross-border STEM cooperation [15] programs at higher education institutions. Thanks to these efforts, STEM fields have been the fastest growing majors [16] for foreign students coming to China.

NOTE: One of China’s most interesting internationalization plays has been its effort to increase enrollment in degree programs from students from countries and regions where both economic development and education systems may be lagging. These students may not have the means to study in North America, Australia, or Europe, and may be attracted to a Chinese education, which is comparatively affordable, particularly thanks to the generous scholarships offered by the Chinese government. In fact, the Chinese government supports about 11 percent [6] of international students through a variety of scholarship programs [22], some of which support students from nations in Africa [23], the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Pacific Island Countries [22].

A Natural Ceiling? Factors That Could Limit Growth

China’s successes to date, which include robustly increasing the number of international students by enacting various supporting policies, portend well for the future of Chinese internationalization efforts.  However, several factors serve as a counterweight to the country’s ambitious goals.

The Future

China will undoubtedly continue to make impressive gains in terms of both increasing the number of international students, and internationalizing its campuses and campus cultures. But just how much the country’s gain will ultimately hurt other traditional markets like the U.S. remains uncertain, at least in the short term.

On one hand, China’s highly centralized government remains determined to execute on goals and policies that will increase its pull. Funding, and efforts to increase global academic rankings at China’s top-tier universities are ongoing. Moreover, the country’s One Belt, One Road Policy will doubtlessly facilitate educational mobility among the 64 countries along the road, much of it headed for China. On the other, China’s internationalization efforts face real limitations – some, such as curbs on academic freedoms and on access to information, manufactured; others, such as the small number of prospective students capable of studying in Chinese, organic in nature. Uneven quality across the sector remains another challenge that still impacts the vast majority of Chinese institutions. But how things will play out over time remains an open question.


1 Student mobility data from different sources such as UNESCO, the Institute of International Education, Project Atlas, and the governments of various countries may be inconsistent, in some cases showing substantially different numbers of international students, whether inbound, or outbound, from or in particular countries. This is due to a number of factors including:  data capture methodology, data integrity, definitions of ‘international student,’ and/or types of mobility captured (credit, degree, etc.). WENR’s policy is not to favor any given source over any other, but to try and be transparent about what we are reporting, and to footnote numbers which may raise questions about discrepancies. This article includes data reported by multiple agencies and organizations.
2 Tsang, M. C. (2000). Education and national development in China since 1949: Oscillating policies and enduring dilemmas, The China Review, 579-618.
3 Iftekhar, S. N., & Kayombo, J. J. (2016). Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (CFCRS): A policy analysis. International Journal of Research Studies in Education5(4), 73-82.
4 Iftekhar, S. N., & Kayombo, J. J. (2016). Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (CFCRS): A policy analysis. International Journal of Research Studies in Education, 5(4), 73-82.
5 Bloom, D. E., Altbach, P. G., & Rosovsky, H. (2016). Looking Back on the Lessons of “Higher Education and Developing Countries: Peril and Promise”—Perspectives on China and India. International Journal of African Higher Education3(1).
6 Li, Y. A., Whalley, J., Zhang, S., & Zhao, X. (2011). The higher educational transformation of China and its global implications. The World Economy34(4), 516-545.
7 Ding, X. (2016). Exploring the experiences of international students in China. Journal of Studies in International Education20(4), 319-338.
large influx of Indian students [33] coming to study in China, 80 percent of who major in medicine. Despite this as well as an increase in English-taught business programs [34], Chinese universities by and large operate in Chinese.
9 Ding, X. (2016). Exploring the experiences of international students in China. Journal of Studies in International Education20(4), 319-338.
10 Jenkins, J. (2013). English as a lingua franca in the international university: The politics of academic English language policy. Routledge.