This brief examines recent developments in the PRC international education sector in China. We look at how the COVID pandemic has derailed Chinese students’ overseas study plans, while conversely, the rising politicisation of the education sector is now a driver for seeking overseas education.

Introduction

With the US fading as the preferred destination for PRC students, leaving other English-speaking countries to gain favour, social and political change at home is emerging as a new driver of overseas study. Meanwhile, student flows to Australia are rebounding.

But with the economy slowing and political controls tighter, overseas-educated Chinese students are finding it tough to land jobs on their return. Nevertheless, overseas education remains in critical demand in many areas, especially in science and technology, in both China and globally.

Looking abroad, Beijing is aligning the Belt and Road Initiative, its signature global venture, with domestic ‘education modernisation’ aspirations. In a sign of Beijing’s commitment to ‘opening up’, new opportunities for multilateral education collaboration are emerging in Hainan and the Greater Bay Area.

education modernisation 2025 

‘Education Modernisation 2035’, appearing in 2019, outlines a long-term education vision. Beijing’s stated objectives encompass opening education up, taking PRC schools and courses overseas, and shoring up tech self-reliance. These priorities can be expected to fluctuate with Beijing’s global outlook.  

A ‘National mid- to long-term plan for modernising education (2018–35)’ laid out Beijing’s plans. The aspiration is to instil socialist core values, boost education quality, and provide equal access and lifelong learning (see table below). Education is to be mobilised to face rising risks that include an increasingly hostile international environment, intractable demographic and ageing pressures, and the relentless struggle to provide jobs. 

The 12 socialist core values, first promoted in early 2014, are a top-down response to a need to repair damage done to social cohesion by the years of class struggle culminating in the Cultural Revolution followed by the heady years of corruption-fuelled breakneck economic growth. 

twelve socialist core values

values for the nation➢ prosperity
➢ democracy
➢ civilisation
➢ harmony
values for society➢ freedom
➢ equality
➢ justice
➢ the rule of law
values for every citizen➢ patriotism
➢ dedication
➢ honesty
➢ kindness

On the back burner for a few years, the values had a major boost in November 2022 when they were included in amendments to the governing and drafting of all laws. They are now to be reflected in all laws, just as they are in education curricula. 

The mid to long-term plan for modernising education encourages international collaboration, including mutual recognition of academic degrees, joint programs with other countries, exchange of students and scholars, and overseas Confucius Institutes.

2035 education targets

2020➢ increasing the mean for years of schooling
➢ improving teaching capacity and global competitiveness
2022➢ reducing rural-urban inequality in education infrastructure
➢ integrating education resources within city clusters and metropolitan areas
➢ setting up a 'modernised national education system'
➢ resolving most pressing issues and challenges
2035➢ popularising lifelong learning
➢ accessible and affordable early childhood and pre-primary education
➢ high quality compulsory education
➢ universal senior education
➢ improved vocational, higher education
➢ basic educational services for disabled children

The plan’s digitalisation goals build on the PRC’s ‘Internet+’ policy that has sought to upgrade a range of industries since 2015. It also builds on the 13th 5-year plan (2016-20), which singled out digitalisation as a major modernisation project for education and a key area for reform. 

Additionally, education reforms aim to tackle inequality. Urban-rural gaps remain severe, with scant progress in recent years. With ‘new urbanisation’ a (re-warmed) feature of the 14th 5-year plan (2021-25), experts urge extending public services, including education, to those lacking urban residence rights (hukou). East coast–interior regional inequality is another concern that MoE pledges to overcome through building higher ed clusters in central and western regions.

Zhang Li 张力
National Education Advisory Committee secretary-general

Former director of MoE’s Research Centre on Education Development, Zhang was responsible for drafting the previous long-term education plan for 2010–20. On ‘Education Modernisation 2035’, Zhang notes that education development is expected to lead national modernisation. The primary target of the long-term plan is to provide universal access to lifelong learning (allowing workers and professionals to continually update their skills) and create an education governance system that enables everyone to participate. This might start with exam and admission reforms and the set up of an academic credit bank.

long COVID-19: no soft landing in sight

Education has seen few major policy moves over the past year. The double-cut policy (see below) was the most notable change. Local-level reforms to the high school graduation exam (gaokao) were among other minor changes. The whole country has been mobilised to fight against COVID-19, and the politicisation of the virus is derailing measures already on the board to modernise education. 

Claiming success in keeping COVID-19 at bay, the Party has linked pandemic prevention/control with its legitimacy, or ‘right to rule’. Hit by a more contagious virus, citywide lockdowns alone have proved ineffective yet have taken on a mounting economic toll. COVID control also plays into the state’s increasingly pervasive surveillance systems. The resulting COVID frustration and fatigue are prompting wider public discontent than the PRC has seen for decades. 

Controls are ever more apparent at the border. Despite some lifting of controls in mid-November 2022 for inbound travellers, the immigration agency warns against non-essential and non-emergency overseas travel, citing ‘better pandemic prevention’. An acceptable reason is now needed to secure a passport. Holders of student or working visas or overseas PR were later exempted. But the vaguely defined terms leave interpretation to border officials. With tougher checks at the border, social media is rife with stories of travellers stopped and questioned by immigration officers. Some returning home overseas have had their permanent resident cards rejected as fake. 

private tutoring crackdown

Beijing’s ambitious plans for education modernisation may gradually unfold. But urgent action was needed to reduce the immediate strains of the hyper-competitive education system. In its biggest education policy move during the pandemic, Beijing introduced the ‘double-cut’ policy in 2021 to improve student well-being. Less homework is to be issued, and less time spent in extracurricular classes or with tutors. The policy will impact international education supply and demand on multiple fronts but has mostly affected English language tutoring firms. 

MoE issued changes to private academic tutoring for years 1–9 in September 2021. All online and conventional tutoring firms had to re-register as non-profits by the end of that year. Provinces now standardise fees, and penalties apply if they are too high. Previously earning a premium, private tutors can no longer be paid significantly more than the average teacher in local state schools. These immediate measures have not yet totally stamped out the tutoring market. Some highly educated dog walkers and cooks were soon to be found working for wealthy families across the country.

Registration procedures for online K–12 (kindergarten to year 12) private academic tutoring firms are also changing. Advertising and tutoring products for years 1–9 from firms not yet approved have been removed from popular online platforms such as Tiktok, Taobao and Kuaishou, reports Jiemian. Tutoring for years 10–12 is already affected, but not for adults. But the industry is not without options, as firms can still sell tutoring products online as long as the firms have been vetted. 

Small and medium-sized tutoring companies have been the hardest hit. Not only do they lack resources to transition to non-academic subjects or move online, they also receive limited support from local authorities eager to comply with Beijing. Even when firms can transition to non-academic subjects, the requirements for upgrading infrastructure can be costly, and there are no set-up guidelines. Tutoring for non-academic courses (music and sport etc.) now falls under the authority of sports, culture and tech. But the agency has been slow to explain its new responsibilities.

The tutoring industry was worth over C¥2 tn in 2020. One year on since the clampdown, its size has shrunk by 20 percent, now standing at about C¥1.6 tn. As of end October 2022, the number of K9 private tutoring institutions dropped by 96 percent from 124,000 to some 4,900. Until guidelines are improved, firms will continue to close.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities for non-academic extracurricular courses. English language instruction is one, though it must adapt to the political and ideological environment in the PRC and be careful to stay within political bounds.

For-profit education is also out of favour for the years of compulsory education. The aim is instead to foster equality of opportunity. Localities now require private for-profit schools covering years 1–9 to convert to public unless qualified to run independently. 

A survey of some 1,000 parents in July and November 2021 regarding choices of non-academic extracurricular courses analysed the impact of the double-cut policy. Before the change, some 95 percent had enrolled their children in interest-based classes: dance, music, calligraphy, painting and languages (other than English, Japanese and Russian were the most popular, according to Southern Metropolis Daily). After the double-cut policy, with less homework and academic tutoring for children, over 80 percent of parents signed their children up for additional extracurricular courses; dance, music, calligraphy and painting were still the most popular; most notably, sport increased at the expense of languages.

Clandestine tutoring, Dong says, erodes efforts to ease the burdens on both students and parents. He calls for a robust supervisory framework to counteract covert operators’ ‘complicated and flexible’ methods.

In the meantime, Dong argues that more policy support is needed to encourage and guide tutoring to transition to non-academic subjects such as vocational training. However, given that demand for tutoring still exists balancing education resources and reforming score-based evaluation is the ultimate solution.

Dong Shengzu 董圣足
Shanghai Academy of Education Sciences Private Education Institute director

English retreats from public ed 

Expat teachers in after-class tutoring for students no longer in the compulsory years are in higher demand from Chinese families than ever before. But stricter monitoring is in the policy pipeline. Foreign language instruction has employed a vast number of unqualified teachers who are no longer welcome in the eyes of Beijing’s policymakers. They recommend strengthening employment regulations for foreigners and increasing penalties for illegal recruitment. 

But it can take months to hire certified teachers from abroad, an industry insider told China Comment. Costs are high to settle visas, arrange tax payments and cover safety issues. These factors are making it harder to learn English in the PRC and may, in the longer run, push PRC students overseas from an ever younger age. For students who remain in China, it will inevitably lead to lower English language proficiency.

foreign language training 

English was in the spotlight from early 2021, thanks to the clampdown on after-school tutoring. In March 2021, MoE stopped organising Cambridge English Main Suite Exams (popular for children and teens in China). Localities are already dropping English language tests, but Beijing is still cautious about signalling strong opposition. Students keen to study overseas can still take the international accreditation exams necessary for applying to overseas schools.

textbooks and curricula 

In addition, Beijing, Zhejiang and Hainan have removed foreign textbooks (in Chinese and other languages) from primary and junior middle schools, reports Caixin. Senior high schools and universities should also be cautious in selecting textbooks published overseas and must apply for approval from local regulators. Teachers in many developed areas, such as Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Beijing and Shanghai, prefer textbooks for language teaching edited by native speakers. 

Under the new policy, only international schools for foreign nationals are allowed to use textbooks of their choosing.

Runxue
润学 rùn xué, or literally, ‘runology’

A homophone of the English word ‘run’, 润 (rùn) became a buzzword at the height of the Shanghai lockdown in mid-April 2022 when strict quarantine policies prompted a surge in online searches about emigration that were swiftly censored. In response, netizens invented the term as a workaround to show their criticism of pandemic control policies and their desire to escape from the PRC while avoiding censorship. With increasing discussions on leaving China, people started to dub this runxue. In May 2022, China’s National Immigration Administration limited ‘unnecessary’ travelling overseas and tightened the issuance of passports. Some anecdotal reports suggested that people who attempted to leave China were stopped at the custom, with their passports confiscated or defaced by immigration officers.

outbound student flows

With over one million students studying abroad in 2019, China remains the number one global source of international students, according to the latest report jointly published by the Centre for China and Globalisation and the People’s Bank of China. The top five destinations are the US, Australia, the UK, Canada and Japan.

Yet, facing a deteriorating bilateral relationship with the US—not least due to the lasting impact of Presidential Proclamation 10043 issued by Trump two years ago—many now do not give American campuses top priority. The Proclamation prohibited students from universities associated with the People’s Liberation Army from being granted visas to study in the US. The number of PRC students studying in the States dropped by 15 percent in 2021, declining for the first time in a decade.

Nevertheless, it has become clear that the demand for overseas education still holds (see Chart 1). In 2022, nearly 90 percent of those who intended to study abroad kept to their plans. With border controls loosened and on-site courses restarted, stranded students in the PRC see light at the end of the tunnel. International education is expected to rebound from the fallout of the pandemic. The changing atmosphere in the PRC is also driving new interest in overseas study. The profiles of new students are also changing, with more mature students applying to MA programs overseas.  

chart 1: PRC students stick with their overseas choices in 2022

source: New Oriental

Meanwhile, Europe is gaining popularity, with France and Germany introducing preferential policies toward PRC students. Asian countries are also picking up steam. With lower costs to complete studies compared to American or European education institutions, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia are likely to attract more PRC students in the future, says the report.

The Private Education Law raises the bar for overseas and private international K–12 schools. In 2021, the State Council issued a set of implementing regulations for the law. Effective from September 2021, existing schools will continue, but new entrants will find it ever harder to register. Schools have been ordered to change their names so that globally recognised names can no longer be used. No new international schools will be allowed for the years of compulsory education. Restrictions have also been tightened on using overseas textbooks in curricula. The law stipulates that the PRC curriculum must now be taught through the years of compulsory education to ensure consistency across core areas of learning. 

These new regulations have prompted many international schools to close or pivot their business model to focus on only foreign students, a dwindling market following the pandemic disruption. In November 2021, a prestigious UK private school, Westminster School, said it would abandon its overseas school in Chengdu, four years after the project had begun. The school had ambitious plans to open six bilingual institutions in China.

international schools in the PRC

typesstructure and studentsregulation
foreign international schoolsGenerally private and foreign-owned, legally can only recruit students holding foreign passports, or in some cases, permanent residency cards in foreign countries.Can use overseas curricula and foreign textbooks.
Sino-foreign cooperative schoolsJVs between foreign ed providers and Chinese institutions (often private and responsible for supplying infrastructure and facilities). Only permitted at upper and post-secondary levels. Both Chinese and foreign students can attend pursuing dual academic tracks to prepare for university overseas.Can use overseas curricula and foreign textbooks only if approved by a local education authority.
international divisions in public schoolsMany are set up in collaboration with private companies, domestic or foreign. Both Chinese and foreign student can attend pursuing dual academic tracks to prepare for university overseas.Must teach PRC curriculum in compulsory years and not allowed to use foreign textbooks.
private Chinese international schoolsThese schools traditionally had greater leeway in structuring their programs than Sino-foreign cooperative schools or public international school divisions. Unlike the latter, they can, for instance, offer junior-secondary programs as long they follow government guidelines. They recruit Chinese students who plan to attend high school or college abroad.Must teach PRC curriculum for history, Chinese, ethics and law subjects in compulsory years and not allowed to use foreign textbooks.

chart 2: Guangdong top province for K-12 international schools

returning student career paths

Beijing is pressing high-achieving overseas graduates to return to live and work in the PRC. They are needed to boost talent at home and put the PRC economy and education system on par with global leaders such as the US and Germany. Due to COVID, more than 80 percent of overseas students returned to China in 2020, according to MoE (See chart 3). Spearheaded by the education minister Chen Baosheng 陈宝生, who is prioritising overseas returnees, the state is actively pursuing more ways to attract and support them. Policies include career opportunities, such as university professorships (e.g. the 1,000 Talents Plan); expedited channels to access services upon return and a better business environment for would-be entrepreneurs.

In 2021, for the first time, the number of students returning from overseas after completing their studies exceeded one million, according to National Development and Reform Commission statistics, reports Caixin. This constitutes some 85 percent of all Chinese students overseas, up by five percent from 2016. 

chart 3: more students returning to China

source: NDRC

More students are returning since the pandemic. The prospect of securing a job at home, however, looks dim. The downward spiral of the economy saw enterprises across industries close to or resorting to layoffs, driving down labour demand. The jobless rate among urban youths (16-24) spiked to an all-time high in July this year, with one in five out of work, reports the National Bureau of Statistics.

The increasing number of returnees makes the job market even tougher. At the same time, job postings specifically prioritising foreign degree holders have been decreasing. Some employers (such as in finance) have reservations about the applicability of international standards to the domestic market. Others worry about the decline in education quality from online courses during the pandemic. Without the added benefits of international exchange in onsite settings, the qualification gap between domestic and foreign graduates is decreasing.

However, demand for returnees remains in some sectors, especially IT and commerce (See chart 4). While some private companies prefer hiring domestic graduates with lower starting salaries, other positions, such as in AI, demand more developed international expertise. Yet job insecurity in these fields means many returnees resort to the long-term security of public sector jobs. 

Party and state agencies jointly released ‘Opinions on strengthening the development of highly skilled professionals for the New Era’ on 7 October. The opinions aim for skilled personnel to account for over 30 percent of total employed and highly skilled personnel to account for one-third by the end of the 14th 5-year plan in 2026.

Instead of addressing unemployment caused by lockdowns and the post-COVID-19 recession, the mainstream media is selling the idea of ‘flexible work’ and promoting the benefits of higher pay, flexible schedules and self-employment. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MoHRSS) is implementing a combo initiative, which includes policies for grassroots employment, corporate jobs, entrepreneurial startups, flexible employment, training and internships. These policies to boost employment are linked to tax breaks, startup guarantee loans, and subsidies.

‘200 million people engage in flexible working arrangements’, CCTV news

chart 4: returning students falling below par

source: NDRC

emerging PRC competition

joint ventures and programs

Beijing is directing students whose overseas study has been disrupted to enrol in JV (joint ventures) programs. Under these initiatives, education institutions in the PRC collaborate with overseas partners to set up degrees, programs, courses and independent institutions that mainly target local PRC students. In many cases, those enrolling in JV courses can spend half of their time at home and the other half abroad to complete their study.

In the wake of the double-cut policy and the de-registering of private schools, Sino–foreign education JVs and programs are growing in number and becoming more popular among Chinese families considering international education, argues Waitan Education.

At the end of 2021, there were some 2,300 education JVs, including 1,340 offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses and 1,000 offering associate vocational ed. All university-level education JVs are approved and supervised directly by MoE, while provinces manage vocational ed JVs.

In July 2022, MoE granted 67 Sino-foreign JV programs permission to admit students through a new fast-track channel designed to take in students whose overseas study plans were interrupted by COVID-19.

Promoting JVs in vocational ed is one of Beijing’s priorities for the next five years. The aim is to align VET (vocational ed and training) with cutting-edge tech and lifelong learning to build world-class programs. Funding is being poured into emerging universities of applied science, vocational and technical universities and tertiary technical institutions.

Analysis of 990 undergraduate ed JVs shows that the majority started admitting students between 2001–07, with a peak in 2002–04. Approval of new undergraduate JVs has been restricted since 2018 and will likely remain so in the near future (see Chart 5).

chart 5: approved programs 1991-2020

source: MoE

chart 6: international partners by country

source: MoE

Of the 990 undergraduate JVs, 259 are collaborating with British institutions, 199 with the US, 122 with Russian and 111 with Australian. In the second tier are Canada, Germany, South Korea, France, Ireland and New Zealand (See Chart 6).

International education strategies vary, depending on the family’s finances and their child’s ability. Wealthier families with talented children choose prestigious international schools in China or send them abroad before high school. Their goal is to land in the top 100 world universities. Less wealthy families with talented children aim to enrol in C9 League universities (an alliance of nine universities in China) and then opt for the top 100 world universities on a scholarship. These families also can choose an education JV.

The reason for selecting international education in these two cases is that talented children will benefit from living abroad and gaining an international degree and network. Wealthier families with low-achieving children prefer countries easiest to immigrate to, majors easiest to graduate from or to find a job with, and plan for their children not to return home. Less wealthy families with low-achieving kids choose South East Asian and European universities with lower fees (See chart 7) but high-quality education. They also consider less competitive university-level joint programs in China. In both these cases, children struggling with the academic stress of Chinese schools are thought to have a better chance to reach their full potential outside the system.

chart 7: Asian countries remain the cheapest options for Chinese students

NOTE: the average expenses are for tertiary education including tuitions and living costs

source: Education Online (EOL)

Middle- and upper-middle-class families are attracted to European and US voc-ed programs because they have low entry thresholds but provide good training and are a vector to obtain permanent residency. If students remain overseas, blue-collar jobs pay well and guarantee some social status that their children may not have been able to achieve in the PRC.

To develop voc-ed in the PRC to improve local skills, it is essential to improve the social status and salary levels of blue-collar workers. Otherwise, no matter how many JVs are introduced, it will be difficult to address the blue-collar labour shortage, argues Waitan Education.

educational opens up in the south

Integration of Hong Kong education institutions into the GBA (Greater Bay Area) is speeding up as Beijing re-asserts authority over the special administrative region. Mainland GBA cities hope to fast-track their higher education expansion by luring Hong Kong’s renowned academic resources. Hainan has outlined its ambition to become an international education hub in its 14th 5-year plan on ed modernisation. It aspires to offer the same advantages as studying in advanced countries.

map 1: Hong Kong universities open GBA campuses

map 2: Hainan to build up ASEAN ed market

Historically a manufacturing hub, the GBA is transforming into a tech and innovation centre. With a robust local economy, high investment in education, a young population and an open-minded culture, the GBA is shaping up as a preferred location for international schools and education JVs. The University of Hong Kong is planning a satellite campus in Shenzhen; it will be the seventh Hong Kong university to set up a campus in the GBA. 

Hainan will work with the GBA and Yangtze River Delta (around Shanghai) to integrate education facilities. It aims to attract branch campuses, labs and research centres of domestic and overseas institutions. 

Capitalising on its strengths, it plans to specialise in ocean science, tropical agriculture, health, tourism and ethnic heritage protection. To promote investment in education, Hainan proposes subsidies for professional education service providers, start-ups and financing firms.

Strong demand for high-quality, globally-competitive education is expected from expat business owners moving to Hainan with their families. The island seeks to make international education a profitable business, targeting wealthy mainlanders and students from ASEAN countries.

PRC universities go abroad

PRC universities are receiving support to pursue a slice of the global education market in a bid to promote soft power and broader awareness of PRC culture among the young outside China. Beijing views ASEAN as a prime market to expand its cultural and educational reach and strengthen its foothold in the South China Sea region. Hainan, as mentioned above, is aiming to be an ideal destination for ASEAN university students and Guangxi a hub for vocational training in the region. Other Chinese universities are also called on to step up academic collaboration. Xiamen University’s Malaysia campus has been the most successful to date.

Peking University: In 2018, the Peking University HSBC Business School opened a wholly foreign-owned graduate school in the UK in collaboration with Oxford University. The school takes students from around the world and offers graduate degrees in business and management. Students spend one year at Peking University’s Shenzhen campus and one year at Oxford.

Tongji University: In collaboration with local and national agencies, Tongji University opened a campus in Florence in 2013, offering summer courses and exchange programs for Tongji students studying painting and art. In 2019, Tongji and the Università degli Studi di Firenze agreed to set up dual-degree master’s programs in architecture and international relations. 

Xiamen University Malaysia: The campus was launched in 2012 at Salak Tinggi and began recruiting from China and ASEAN in 2015. The largest and most successful overseas campus run by a PRC institution, XUMC offers English- taught undergrad degrees in media, business, traditional Chinese medicine, chemistry, marine engineering and ICT. 

Lao Soochow University: Soochow University opened a campus in Vientiane, Laos in 2011 as part of a PRC aid program. With a focus on Chinese language training, it also offers undergrad degrees in international economics, finance and computer science. The goal is for graduates to then pursue further study in the PRC.

overseas voc-ed programs Voc-ed ‘going global’ is a new attempt to internationalise Chinese education. BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) countries serve as the main sources for international voc-ed students and the main locations for overseas voc-ed schools. More than 400 voc-ed partnerships with other institutions have been established, and the number of full-time international students enrolled in China has reached 17,000. Additionally, 20 ‘Luban Workshops’, named after a mythical Chinese carpenter, operate overseas.

international students in Australia

Since the onset of COVID-19, remote learning has been the main obstacle for PRC students wishing to study in Australia. The border closure enforced in early 2020 saw campuses across the country pivot to online teaching, catering for the needs of students stranded overseas. Yet quick adaptation aside, Australia’s allure as a study destination dwindled as students overseas were left with no choice but to study online, often without any reduction in tuition fees. Enrolments from the PRC declined by 12 percent in 2021. Those who had intended to go to Australian schools opted for countries that kept their borders open, such as the UK and Canada. 

The tide turned when borders reopened in November 2021. Students are returning, including PRC students, who comprise the largest cohort of international students in Australia. Shrinking to about 270,000 in 2021, less than half of the pre-COVID level, the number of on-shore international students recovered to some 370,000 by October this year. 

Though visas issued to those from the PRC have rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels, more than 37,000 Chinese international students are yet to return due to travel restrictions in their home country, the latest October data from the Australian Government Department of Education shows.

Other preferential policies are behind the surge. In September this year, working restrictions for student visa holders were temporarily lifted. Meanwhile, visas to work in Australia after graduation were extended for international students from selected degrees, though the actual degrees have not yet (November 2022) been announced. Greater access to the local labour markets—a key driver in student choice—is expected to bring back more PRC students.