The International Mobility of Chinese Students: A Cultural Perspective

By Liu, Wei | The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, December 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

The International Mobility of Chinese Students: A Cultural Perspective


Liu, Wei, The Canadian Journal of Higher Education


China is currently the number one source country of international students around the world. From 1978 to 2013, the total number of Chinese students who went overseas to study reached over 3 million (EOL, 2014). In 2011 alone, the total number of Chinese students studying overseas was 339,700 (comprising 14% of students studying abroad around the world), among whom 90% were studying at their own expense (Yangtze Evening Post, 2012).

Currently, there are 95,160 Chinese students studying in Canada-about one-third of all international students in Canada (295,505) (CBIE, 2014) and 10% of all Chinese students currently studying overseas. This makes Canada the fourth most desirable destination for Chinese students, after the USA (30%), the UK (21%), and Australia (13%) (EOL, 2014).

In 2008, Chinese students contributed over USD 15 billion a year to their host countries' economies, almost half of China's total higher education spending (Zha, 2011). Canada derives CAD 8 billion annually from international student expenditures, including tuition and living expenses (Roslyn Kunin & Associates, 2012), and in 2009, international education as an industry created over 83,000 jobs and generated more than CAD 291 million in government revenue (CBIE, 2014). As Chinese students comprise one-third of the total international student population, this means that Chinese students alone spend close to CAD 2.7 billion a year in Canada, contributing to nearly 18,000 jobs and generating CAD 97 million in government revenue.

The huge tide of Chinese students flowing overseas for higher education, particularly self-supporting undergraduate students, has been much appreciated by cash-strapped universities in the West. In Canada, tuition fee income makes up about 23% of the average university's operating budget, of which over 25% is contributed by international students, who constitute about 10% of the university population (based on Statistics Canada, 2012). While Western universities, mostly in English-speaking countries, step up their efforts in a fierce competition for Chinese students, they all seem to have a deep sense of concern and uncertainty over the future supply of Chinese students and the sustainability of the stream of revenue generated by international tuition fees. Given the context of such concern and uncertainty, Western universities eagerly seek accurate forecasts regarding trends in international student mobility.

Current Models of Prediction

One important way to examine the pattern of international student mobility is to look at the push and pull factors (Altbach, 1998). Students are pushed to go overseas by unfavourable conditions in their home countries. They are also pulled to come out by the favourable conditions offered by the host countries.

The push factors, in the Chinese case, may include the fierce competition for admission into "brand-name" higher education institutions and the perceived poorer quality of education in third-tier and fourth-tier institutions, which may result in low chances of employment upon completion. Of course, one enabling push factor is the increase in household income that has made high international tuition fees affordable to more Chinese families. The pull factors may include the perceived better quality of English-medium education overseas, the ability to enter a particular program not available at home, the desire to gain overseas experience and international competence, and the intention to immigrate after graduation (based on Mazzarol & Soutar, 2001).

The pull factors seem to have stayed more or less stable over the past few decades in major destination countries, although these countries have had different policy changes, which have resulted in changes in the distribution of international students among them. What has been the focus in predictions about future international student mobility are the push factors. The most prominent push factors in the case of China are the Chinese demographic trend, the development of Chinese higher education, and the trend of China's economic growth. …

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