Some Chinese Students Stay Home to Get Ahead

In 2012, one of every six of the world's international students came from China, but Change Is Afoot.

Li Shan's oldest son was the perfect candidate to join the throngs of Chinese students studying abroad. But he chose Tsinghua University in Beijing.

That is an unusual choice for a graduate of the elite Hong Kong International School, whose students mostly go to colleges in the U.S. The culture shock involved goes beyond squat toilets and communal showers. But while many Chinese students returning from overseas are having a tough time finding jobs at home, Mr. Li's son has secured a position at a global bank in Beijing since graduatlng this summer.

"Many foreigners are going to China to study, it makes even more sense for us Chinese to do that," said Mr. Li, chairman and chief executive of Chinastone Capital Management and former vice chairman of Asia investment banking at UBS.

"With all those professors they recruited from abroad, Tsinghua should be even more competitive than it was when I went there," added Mr. Li, who also earned a doctorate in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His eldest daughter, who is studying at Princeton University, said she wants to pursue graduate studies in Beijing.

For years, China has been the world's biggest exporter of students. The number of Chinese students leaving for overseas study has been growing at more than 20% a year over the past few years, according to official estimates. In 2012, one of every six of the world's international students came from China, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

That growth is expected to stall due to a combination of demographics, better options at home and rising concerns about safety abroad. From now through 2020, the number of Chinese students studying overseas is expected to grow by just 4% in total to 585,000, according to Education Intelligence, the global higher-education service for the British Council. In comparison, the number of overseas students from India during the same period is expected to grow by 40% to 296,000.

Most of that is simply the result of changing demographics. In China, the number of people aged 18 to 22 will fall by 40 million in the next 10 years, according to China's Ministry of Education.

The country is also working hard to improve its education system, partly to prevent "brain drain," said Anna Esaki-Smith, editorial director of Education Intelligence. In the past 30 years, only 37% of Chinese educated overseas have returned to China, according to the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank.

More investment from the central government has helped. According to QS World University Rankings, the number of Chinese universities in the global top 50 last year rose to five from four in 2008, and rankings for all of these schools improved. QS bases its rankings on academic reputation, using a global survey, faculty-student ratios and academic citations per faculty member.

It is now possible to get an education surrounded by international students without leaving China. This August, New York University Shanghai ushered in its first freshman class of 295 students. Half of the students are from outside China.

The proposed Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua, endowed by Blackstone founder Stephen Schwarzman, will reserve 80% of the places for students from outside China.

Although some of the universities that initially opened in China aren't among the most prestigious, better-known ones have followed. Duke University is expected to offer graduate degrees in a city near Shanghai in 2014. New York's famed Juilliard School said in June it plans to develop its first overseas campus in Tianjin.

While the benefits of studying abroad go beyond the degree itself, academic qualifications can be obtained much more cheaply in China. At NYU Shanghai, annual tuition of $45,000 is the same as in New York, but students from China pay just a third of that.

There are other reasons for students to stay at home. This year has seen a string of accidents and attacks involving overseas Chinese students. Three high-school girls who flew to California to attend a summer program were killed in a plane crash. Earlier this year, a Chinese student died in the Boston Marathon bombing. Just a few months ago, six Chinese students were attacked in the French wine region of Bordeaux.

The stronger desire to stay near home is making good schools in China and Hong Kong more competitive. "Safety is more of a concern among students now," said John Cox, head of university counseling at Victoria Shanghai Academy in Hong Kong. "Universities here are now very hard to get into because Hong Kong is seen as a safe place."



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