COVID-19 and international relations are reshaping the choices of Chinese studying abroad

Despite travel restrictions during the pandemic, China remains the main country of origin of international students, with a total of 1,061,511 students attending overseas higher education institutions in 2019. China holds the global top spot, boasting 600,000 more students than the country on the second position, India (461,792).

In the last few years, the number of international students going back to China after a study abroad experience has significantly increased, but the global pandemic and changes in international relations have accelerated such trend. According to the 2022 Insight Report on Chinese Students Returning to China for Job Search released by LinkedIn, the number of Chinese students returning home after completing their studies in 2020 increased by 33.9% year-on-year, and continued to grow in 2021: it is estimated that over one million Chinese students went back to China to seek for a job in 2021, recording a 35.01% year-on-year rise.

Chinese studying abroad return home after graduation
Source: 2022 Insight Report on Chinese Students Returning to China for Job Search released by LinkedIn, Chinese students returning home after graduation

Less young Chinese go to study to the US

Chinese students take into consideration different factors when it comes to choosing their destination, mainly including the political and economic stability of the foreign country, the level and prestige of the hosting institution, language, culture, fees, and social security. After the pandemic, the acceptance rate and available accommodation for Chinese students are key factors as well.

According to the China Study Abroad Development Report released by CCG, the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. declined in 2022 because of the frictions between China and the U.S. In early October 2022, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the number of visas issued by U.S. universities for Chinese students fell sharply during fall, decreasing by 45% (40,000) year-over-year. However, currently, China is still the main country of origin of international students in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan, which means the Chinese study abroad market still has high potential, due to China’s huge population base.

As visa policies depend on the major, Chinese students willing to study abroad usually take it into account when it comes to choosing a destination country. For example, the H-1B employment visa of the United States tends to welcome students in STEM fields. In 2021, Biden signed the U.S. Citizenship Act, which proposed no numerical limit on immigrant visas for “noncitizens who have earned a doctorate in a STEM field at an accredited U.S. institution of higher education” in the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Chinese students going abroad are usually enrolled at master’s degree programs

During the last decade, a large number of Chinese students has gone abroad for their postgraduate degrees. Overseas universities are also very interested in recruiting Chinese students due to the huge economic income generated by international students. Another reason is that China’s basic education is sound, and the quality of students is high.

For instance, the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) enrolls a dozen undergraduates in China each year, and official data show that there are currently 69 undergraduates from China, and up to 776 graduate students.

Chinese studying abroad at mit
Source: MIT ISO, Countries with largest representation at MIT during Fall 2021

Such students usually come from China’s top institutions. Each year, 15-20% of Chinese students from the top domestic universities choose to continue their studies abroad. For example, in Peking University, 18.9% of students decided to go to study overseas after bachelor’s in 2021, according to Peking University Employment Guidance Service Center.

peking university students after graduation
Source: Peking University Student Employment Guidance Service Center, What Peking University students did after graduation in 2021

Moreover, most of the students go to highest ranked world universities: the data disclosed by Peking University for 2019 cohort showed that students mainly enrolled at top U.S. schools, with Stanford, MIT, and Harvard alone attracting nearly 80 students in total, and Columbia, known as one of the top Ivy League schools for Chinese students, luring 78 students.

Chinese studying abroad: where do they go?
Source: Peking University Student Employment Guidance Service Center, Main destinations of Chinese studying overseas

The increasing return rate of Chinese studying overseas intensifies the competitiveness on the job market

The number of international students who chose to return to China after graduation has increased. Factors such as the pandemic and changes in international relations have accelerated the trend of returning to China. When students go back to China, they are pretty concerned about the recognition of foreign qualifications when they seek for a job. Generally speaking, international students have an advantage when seeking employment in first-tier cities. According to the “2022 Overseas Fresh Graduates Employment Competitiveness Insight Report” released by Job Search (猎聘, domestic big job seeking platform), companies in higher-tier cities prefer students who studied abroad. Most of HRs think that, under the same conditions, study abroad experience is a plus for candidates. As to the reasons for preferring to recruit international students, the top three reasons given by corporate HRs are “high foreign language skills are required for related positions”, “the company needs diversity in talents,” and “more international perspective and knowledge”.

Short master’s do not enjoy high recognition in China

In China, some people would call some short-duration (1-1.5 years, while local master’s degree is around 2-3 years) master’s degrees “水硕” (lowly-recognized master, mainly refer to the short-duration master program) and cast doubt on their competitiveness. On RED, there are over 17k+posts related to “水硕”, showing such students’ concern about this topic.

Source: Red, search suggestions for “水硕”

At the same time, some international students with short degrees may also be worried about their employment. Nevertheless, from January 2018 to May 2022, the talent competitiveness index of graduates with overseas master’s degree of two years or more and graduates with overseas master’s degree of less than two years is comparable, thus proving that the length of study has little impact on graduates’ job search.

When it comes to city tiers, most (82%) of international students chose first-tier cities, while only 14% opted for second-tier cities. Nearly half (46%) of Chinese students going back to China to seek for a job moved to Eastern China (Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Anhui), while 26% chose Southern China (Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Hainan).

What to know about Chinese students studying overseas

  • Despite travel restrictions during the pandemic, China remains the main country of origin of international students.
  • Chinese students take into consideration different factors when it comes to choosing their destination, mainly including the political and economic stability of the destination country, the level and prestige of higher education, language, culture, cost of study, social security. After the epidemic, the acceptance and accommodation of Chinese students also becomes one of the key factors.
  • For some international students who want to stay and work in the country of study, or even emigrate there after graduation, their choice of major would be influenced by the visa policies of the destination countries (and vice versa visa policies affect their choice of destination).
  • During the last decade, a large number of Chinese students chose to go abroad at the postgraduate level.
  • The number of international students who choose to return to their home countries after graduation has increased in the last few years.

Learn about Double 11 2022