This special report has been prepared by Nguyen Ha Linh, Zhao Mingjun, Charmaine Magbuhos, Raphael Perri, Shen Chen and Erdenenyam.P., reporters in the Global Business Journalism program's In-depth Reporting and News Writing course.
Global Business Journalism reporter
Jing Wei, a sociology graduate from Sichuan province in southwest China, who obtained her undergraduate degree from the Communication University of China, surveyed the bleak job market in her country and decided that the most viable path to an economically secure future lay outside of China’s borders.
"There were two alternatives: either getting a job after graduating with my bachelor's or doing my master's degree abroad," Wei said.
She found that the job market was tight. And with more master’s degree graduates than bachelor’s recipients competing for the limited supply of job opportunities, landing a good job was all but impossible. So, she decided to continue her studies in Gender, Media and Culture at the Goldsmiths, University of London, U.K.
"I wanted to experience a different education system and a different way of life in a foreign country," she explained.
Despite the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical tensions, a growing number of Chinese bachelor’s degree recipients are opting to study abroad to enhance their competitiveness in the tight Chinese job market and improve their intercultural competence. According to recent projections from Chinese educational consultants, the number of students applying to study overseas in 2023 has exceeded pre-pandemic numbers, when the state education ministry estimated that 2.5 million Chinese students studied abroad.
Developed countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, are the most popular destinations for Chinese students, accounting for about 70% of all applicants, according the E-Commerce (TP) and Marketing Agency in China. Due to Amid simmering China-U.S. tensions, Great Britain is becoming the top destination for students like Wei. The UK was the top choice of 41% of Chinese applicants, compared to 30% for the U.S., down from 51% in 2015. A survey of 350 Chinese students by the Chinese digital marketing firm SINORBIS found that 45 percent of respondents were interested in studying in the United Kingdom. The firm projected that the number of Chinese students in Britain would increase by more than 70% by 2030.
Wu Jingjing, who studied Asian and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Cambridge in the U.K, said that her education experience at Cambridge has made her realize that there are more possibilities for future career choices.
“I think I developed my academic writing skills during my studies at Cambridge. In my past education experience, I had never received very detailed feedback to any of my writing works,” she said. “So this experience really helped me to think, develop, improve and communicate my ideas and became a very important step in my academic development."
Previously, Wu’s goal was to become an academic, but now she is more interested in becoming a freelance journalist or policy analyst.
Jialing Shi, who majored in political science from Fudan University, had an opportunity to study at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States as an exchange student in final year of her undergraduate studies. She said American universities are popular because many have famous professors and better educational resources. Now she works as a consultant in BCG's Shanghai office.
"It is very competitive in our local job market, so studying abroad can be a good opportunity to help us stand out among our peers when applying for jobs," Jialing noted.
Other ascendant nations for Chinese students include Japan, Singapore and Germany, while countries involved in high-profile diplomatic disputes with China, such as Canada and Australia, are seen as less desirable educational destinations, according to data on Statistica.com.
When seeking a graduate school, Chinese students say they are looking for an unforgettable learning experience in a highly ranked university that can boost their career prospects. Edward Lee, a Chinese graduate in Canada, who studied in Finance in his undergraduate degree at the Wilfred Laurier University, said he chose university over country. He said the cultural experience of studying in North America has made him a better candidate for leadership jobs.
"Studying abroad has broadened my perspectives by exposing me to diverse cultures,” he said. “Most importantly, this experience taught me independence and boosted my confidence.”
Not every Chinese undergraduate can afford to make the choice that was available to Lee. Studying abroad is only an option for students with family financial means to pay for high tuition costs. Still, 63% of Chinese urban households were considered affluent or upper-middle income in 2022, according to McKinsey and Company, compared to 17% in 2012. That means about 140 million households have the option to send their children overseas to study.
According to China Briefing, young middle-class families rarely eat out or travel abroad. Instead, they prioritize saving to pay international tuition fees for their children to accelerate their climb up the economic ladder. With jobs scarce, getting a master’s degree abroad has become even more important to them.
“As long as the family can afford it, I would like my child to go abroad to learn something real," one Chinese father, lawyer Li Xuezong, told Reuters.