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Special Report

Degree of Uncertainty

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues and anti-globalization sentiments increase worldwide, many Chinese students are reconsidering their plans to study abroad. But will this shift lead to a long-lasting decline in overseas enrollment?

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Students walk across Georgetown University campus in Washington DC, US, May 7

Discussions were sparked online during this year’s two sessions, a key event in the country’s political calendar, after Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) member Ni Minjing proposed that Chinese students seeking to return from studying at overseas universities enroll in vocational schools.  

Critics on social media said Ni’s statement was degrading and meant to lower the status of overseas students. 

In a recent interview with the People’s Daily, Ni responded that his proposal was intended for Chinese students encountering difficulties in continuing their studies abroad, for which he offered two solutions: enroll in vocational schools without having to take an entrance exam or test to enter a Chinese university or college. He also suggested that Chinese schools establish a system to transfer academic credits earned abroad.  

“It’s a very realistic problem for students having difficulties and I had no intention of looking down on any overseas students,” he told the Party paper.  

Ni won over some naysayers, who said his proposal was timely as schools worldwide are still reeling from the coronavirus that has so far infected more than eight million people globally as of June 16.  

“Most students seeking to study abroad should have been preparing for language exams or other pre-enrollment work, but the pandemic has forced many schools to cancel exams and postpone reopening. It has added many uncertainties to overseas study,” Ma Xing, director of study abroad in Britain at the New Oriental Education and Technology Group, China’s largest language training center, told NewsChina. 

These sentiments increased as some countries, especially the US, grew hostile toward China during the pandemic. The US, for example, announced on May 29 that they would ban Chinese people holding J or F student visas from entering the US over fears they would steal sensitive technology and intellectual property. Two days prior, US Senator Tom Cotton proposed banning Chinese students from obtaining master’s degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.  

These factors have made some Chinese students and their parents rethink studying abroad, or give up on it altogether.  

Pandemic Impact
Among them was Liu Ya, a graduate from a university in Beijing. He was accepted to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta earlier this year, but the school cannot start in August as scheduled. The school provided two alternatives for students: start their courses online or apply to admissions for an extension.  

Liu likes neither option. The first, he said, would mean shortening his stay in the US, which hinders his plans to work abroad following graduation. The second is risky, because it means being thrown back into the pool of applicants for the next school year.  

Wang Qian faces the same conundrum. She told NewsChina that she was accepted to a doctoral program at a British university, but her family was reluctant to let her go while the pandemic is not contained. But Wang worries that asking for an extension would mean giving up her spot. 

“My worst-case scenario would be to shift to Hong Kong [to study], if the pandemic keeps coming back,” she said.  

Zhang Xinyue, the mother of a high schooler applying to study in the US next year, was not so anxious. She told NewsChina that the next SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) was postponed because of the pandemic, but she believes that US schools would take measures such as canceling some exams or moving them online.  

“I didn’t think too much about whether the pandemic would last two years like some experts say... I believe the pandemic will be under control by next autumn when it’s time for my son to go,” she said.  

“As far as I know, few students have changed their plans to study abroad over the pandemic, since they’ve been preparing since middle school or even earlier, and it’s not easy for them to now have to start preparing for the gaokao (China’s college entrance exam),” Ran Wei, expert in overseas study at New Channel, an English-language training center for studying abroad, told NewsChina.  

Domestic Advantages
Some parents, especially those of younger students, still have concerns about their children’s safety. Ye Xuan, a customs agent in Xiamen, Fujian Province, told NewsChina that she has contacted a local school about enrolling her son who was returning from a public middle school in Toronto, Canada after it suspended classes in April.  

Having worked on the pandemic’s frontlines, Ye saw first-hand how young students were forced to wear protective gear and travel for days through multiple cities to return home. Ye felt studying in China appeared to be the better option. “China is not bad and many of my friends doing business abroad are also more and more confident in our country,” she said.  

Wu Tainan, a businessman in Beijing, has mixed feelings.  

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, my wife and I wouldn’t have been so quick to bring our children home,” he told NewsChina. 

Wu had two sons enrolled in public schools in Austria. Because he worked in Beijing while his wife and children lived in Austria, the family had been considering returning to China before the pandemic. However, they remained reluctant, especially since Wu’s oldest son was not willing to start over in a new school. In April, as Covid-19 swept through Europe, the family finally returned.  

To help his elder son adjust to the Chinese curriculum, Wu sent him to a private school in Beijing. 51shangsili, a study abroad consultancy, wrote on its official Sohu blog that there are at least four private schools in Beijing taking returned overseas students like Wu and Ye’s children. 

Since Zhang Xinyue has a US green card, she had planned to send her three children to the US to study. While the pandemic has not deterred her, she said a few other families she knows are now considering domestic or East Asian schools.  

One mother among her friends, for example, had struggled to find someone to help look after her child studying in the UK after schools were closed there. She told Zhang it was then she realized there are uncertainties about overseas study.  

“I hope that my son could at least be educated locally during middle school... and I will not make any plans for his studies [abroad] after that... I’d prefer if he stayed in China, as there is a lot of room and opportunities for development here,” she told NewsChina.  

Other Concerns
Cheng Xu, a junior at Beijing University of Technology, was looking to pursue a master’s degree in Britain. She told NewsChina that getting admitted to a British university is much easier than dealing with the “dog-eat-dog” competition of master’s degree programs in China. Also, many British schools have one-year master’s courses, two years less than at most Chinese universities. 

But she wavered after her family and teachers told her it is very difficult for a foreign student to stay and work abroad after graduation, while studying at home will enable her to better network for her career.  

The pandemic pushed Cheng to change her mind, along with other concerns such as personal safety and discrimination. 

Impacted by the trade war and the pandemic, Sino-US relations are at a low point. An April 6 report by the New York Post said that a 39-year-old Chinese American woman in New York was injured after a man poured sulfuric acid on her. Police said the suspect had been skulking in the woman’s neighborhood, which is predominately Chinese, before the attack.  

In the UK, on March 19, four Chinese students were reportedly attacked by five teenagers and children near dormitories at the University of Southampton while shouting “Chinese virus” and “Go back to China.” 

“In terms of quality of education, the US is the best choice for studying abroad, as it has the world’s highest number of top-rated universities, but I have crossed the US off my list. My daughter is my family’s only child and I have to make safety a top priority,” Wang Wan, a mother of a high school sophomore in Beijing, told NewsChina.  

According to Mary Ji, a language teacher in Hefei, Anhui Province, few of her students considering studying abroad have changed their plans but some are taking the changing political climate into consideration.  

“One of my students who is studying for a master’s in the US is switching to the UK for a doctorate,” said Ji. “Another is considering an offer from a leading Australian university, instead of applying to his favorite school in the US,” she said. 

“The pandemic and politics will not stop Chinese students from going abroad, but many are now adding other countries to their lists and making backup plans for their overseas studies,” she added.  

“The golden age of globalization is gone,” He Fan, a professor at Antai College of Economics and Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, told babazhenbang, a social media account focused on international education. He warned that Chinese students overseas might face more risks, including xenophobia and racial discrimination.  

Stay or Go?
Ma Xing, however, thinks the situation could also work out for students. He told NewsChina that the pandemic has made schools more eager to enroll international students to offset the economic slowdown. For example, the 120,000 Chinese students in the UK are a major source of income for many British schools. According to Ma, British schools are offering preferential policies to overseas students, such as recognizing other countries’ language proficiency exams, including the TOEFL, PTE, Duolingo and China’s CET (College English Test).  

“Compared to previous years, there have been fewer people coming for consultations and students planning to study abroad have spent more time thinking over their plans,” Ma said. “But this will not last long and I believe the number of applicants to study in Britain will bounce back after the pandemic is under control.”  

Qiu Yourong, who works for a company that preps Chinese applicants to US universities, said that despite China-US tensions they have not seen a drop in applicants. “The students and their parents still believe that the leading universities in the US provide the world’s best education,” she told NewsChina.  

Ye Xuan said if her son is not accepted to a top high school in China, she would reconsider sending him abroad.  

“Actually, I don’t totally prefer Canada’s education system. It’s practical, but I find it too loose and not good for students with poor self-discipline. Besides, I also worry about my son’s native language level if he studies abroad when he’s young,” she said.  

Wu Tainan agrees. “Domestic and foreign education both have advantages and disadvantages, and as parents we should find the one most suited for our children,” he said. 
“Chinese people used to think that domestic education was completely inferior to Western education, but now they realize that Chinese education has its advantages and disadvantages, as does Western education,” He Fan said.  

This attitude shift is also reflected in the job market. Many companies no longer favor applicants with overseas education backgrounds.  

“More and more factors are entering family discussions on whether to study abroad, including career prospects, political and cultural differences, and the value of the diploma the target school provides. Ten years ago, most Chinese people’s motivation for studying abroad was very simple: go to the US and find a better job back home. But in recent years, people will weigh the differences in the environment, opportunity and social networks,” Qiu said.  

A day before our interview, Cheng Xu said she received a call from an overseas study consultancy. The agent told her that now is the time to apply given the decreased number of competitors.  

“If I had a good chance, I would not necessarily give up, but I won’t consider Britain and the US any longer... Maybe Singapore, which is culturally similar to China, is a good choice,” Cheng said.