Outside the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University there is a statue of Yung Wing, the first Chinese scholar to have graduated from an American university.
After receiving his degree in 1854, Yung returned to China to pioneer the Chinese Educational Mission, which co-funded the studies of 120 Chinese in the United States.
Yung advocated that “the rising generation of China should enjoy the same educational advantage I enjoyed; that through Western education China may be regenerated.”
Because of the Trump administration’s increasingly restrictive attitude towards Chinese students studying at American universities, Yung’s statue has something of a bygone feel. The American president did backtrack a little after his G20 meeting with President Xi Jinping at the end of June, signalling a more open stance on Chinese coming to study in the US.
However, given the headlines in China this year about rejections of student visa applications and cancellations of university places on national security concerns, the damage has largely been done: many Chinese parents are now uncertain on whether their offspring should even bother applying to US colleges.
This is a significant challenge for America’s institutions of higher education which have become increasingly reliant on Chinese student fees.
In the past decade alone, the number of Chinese choosing to study at US universities has flourished, or intensified, depending on your stance. For the academic year 2007/08 there were 81,127 Chinese students making the journey – mainly choosing to go to California or New York. By the academic year 2017/18, this figure had jumped to 363,341 and NAFSA, the world’s largest non-profit dedicated to international education, calculated that for the last academic year (2017-18) students from China had contributed $13 billion to the American economy.
In spite of the surge in student numbers over the last decade, more and more Chinese are choosing to consider other options, frustrated at the growing unpredictability of US policy on Chinese nationals attending American seats of learning.
Since July 2018, Chinese nationals studying for postgraduate degrees within robotics, aviation and hi-tech manufacturing have been restricted to 12-month visas, for instance, with these areas deemed as a more likely threat to US national security and a source of intellectual property theft.
The upshot: what was once a seemingly innate preference for US schools over alternative options in countries like the UK, Canada and Australia has morphed into a decision filled with much more apprehension.
Sometimes the concerns of Chinese parents about their children studying in the US are couched in slightly different terms. Nancy, a stay-at-home mum from Shanghai, whose daughter is 16 and starting to consider her university options, told WiC: “Online horror stories have dissuaded me from sending my daughter to the US to study. We have family friends who sent their daughter to university in Miami, but she could hear gunshots at night. Also, being quite timid, she didn’t feel she had had the opportunity to integrate into US university culture and make American friends. After six months, she came back to China and reapplied to a university in Kent, in the UK, the following year.”
However, she also thinks there is a wider sense that Chinese students are no longer so welcome in the US. “I think the changing policy sends a darker message to Chinese nationals, and that message will only be intensified. It does nothing but worry parents and give the impression that studying in the US as a Chinese national, is dangerous,” she says.
Netizens in China have also made shootings on American campuses an issue when weighing up safety concerns versus other countries.
The fatal shootings of 23 year-olds Ming Qu and Ying Wu, students at University of Southern California (USC), in 2012 first triggered alarm bells for many parents, but beyond these safety fears, says Yang Zhuolan, founder of InVisor, a Guangzhou-based Education Consultancy, are two predominant concerns for the majority of his Chinese clientele.
One is that their visa applications will be rejected; while the second is that post-study employment prospects for Chinese nationals in the US are also shrinking.
“Rumours circulating on the internet in China with regards to student visas being rejected are vicious. Many netizens have said they believe this will jeopardise the already highly risky STEM-related degrees, even though the success rate of student-relevant visas (e.g.the F1) has been increasing recently. Those working towards their PhDs in a STEM-related field have expressed concern at having their visas cancelled midway through their degrees – and that’s a significant burden, given that a PhD in the US can take between five to 10 years,” Yang told WiC.
In April we reported on the case of Wang Da, a doctoral student at the University of Texas, who was unable to return to his studies due to visa complications. And Yang says that in light of this kind of unpredictability, increasing numbers of Chinese parents are stating their preferences for their children to study elsewhere.
“InVisor’s services have always covered the UK and Canada in addition to the US, so for us we simply shift our priorities without having to understand entire new application processes. But it has been fairly apparent that parents have started to show a growing interest in Canada, and particularly the UK.”
A recent report by EIC Education, another education consultancy, found that 20% of Chinese students now select the UK as their first choice for university, compared to the 17% that are keener on the US.
Sun Tao, the president of the New York-listed education giant New Oriental, said at a recent forum that the number of Chinese students applying to UK universities had “soared” by 30% over the past 12 months.
Dr Elizabeth Adey, Founder of UK-based Uni Direct, highlights another reason why customers from China are looking at a wider range of options. “The rising cost of studying in the US is the most common reason our Chinese clientele gives us for choosing other countries over the US. But increasingly we also get a sense from prospective students that they are seeking out an environment that feels more welcoming and often one that offers incentives such as post-study work permits,” she says.
“Many countries like Canada are making their education systems more open to international students to both study and embark on a career after graduating. New visa rules help retain talented students. Also, in Germany, for example, some courses are free or have a very low cost for international students.”
For fathers such as Jiafeng from Beijing, who is sending his daughter to one of the UK’s most prestigious girls’ boarding schools this year, the political mood will also play a significant factor in where she will go to university.
As he told WiC: “It has always been my preference for my daughter to complete her schooling in the UK, and then her university studies in the US. But recent political shifts have skewed my preferences, particularly since my business has been negatively impacted by the trade war”.
“I’d always wanted my daughter to graduate from Harvard – apparently the same dream as 99% of Chinese parents. But what if she starts at Harvard, comes home to China for the summer, and her visa is denied so that she is unable to complete her studies? We as a family lose face, my daughter’s education is disrupted, and we have to find an alternative.”
Jiafeng explained that while the there is uncertainty in the outlook in the UK because of Brexit, there has been no targeting of Chinese students, unlike the situation in the US.
“Places like Cambridge and Harvard are both renowned throughout the English (and indeed Chinese) speaking world. To me, it now makes no difference which one my daughter attends. In the next five years, if Sino-US tensions have eased, then great. My daughter will be applying from a UK school anyway, so as a Chinese national it should be less of a problem… But Cambridge is also a little less expensive than Harvard, so maybe we’ll stick to the UK,” he said.
This essay was written and researched by Olivia Halsall, who has been working in Shanghai in the private tuition sector and wrote a previous insight on Chinese educational trends for WiC in issue 435.
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