A Future Decline in Chinese Study Abroad Numbers

A number of sources predicted a decline in the total number of Chinese students studying abroad. The OUTLOOK Magazine, published by the Chinese government-run Xinhua News Agency, issued a special edition on Chinese students studying abroad in Dec 2020. It quoted Navitas’ report highlighting the reduction in the Chinese population in the HE brackets from 116m in 2010 to an estimated 80m in 2025. Despite its acknowledgement that 200,000-300,000 Chinese are studying TOEFL at any given time, OUTLOOK pointed out that even before COVID, the growth in Chinese students studying in the US in 2018-19 was just 1.7% (translating to around 6,000 students), and such decline in growth rates has been around for 6 consecutive years. The journal predicted that the US will soon no longer be Chinese students’ No.1 preferred study destination. Students are more willing than ever to broaden their considerations of potential study destinations.

CHEN Zhiwen, Chief Editor of EOL, the largest Chinese education online content service provider, believes the current low growth period will last for another ten years before its eventual tip into decline. In 2019, 700,000 Chinese went to study abroad; a similar scale should be expected in the coming normal years before the decline occurs around 2030.

In addition to the US, CHEN also classifies Canada as being in a stage of “stagnant growth”; while even the UK, optimistically rated with a “ strong growth”, only translated to an extra 20,000 students in 2019-20.

The reason for this overall stagnant growth is complex: caused by the new generations’ perception of lifestyle and preferred environment; the reality check on demand and supply of overseas educated talents, as well as impacts of political trauma in China’s bilateral relationships. There is a strong emphasis on encouraging studying towards a foreign degree without physically going abroad but through joint programs and other articulation arrangements. 

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