A new study challenges stereotypes about Chinese students and finds they have more in common with European students than commonly assumed.

As many as 50 million young Chinese have migrated from their hometowns in the countryside and become urban residents as a result of seeking higher education, while Chinese students constitute the largest single group of international students in the richer countries of the world, making up 20% of the total student migration to these countries. 

Conversely, the number of Japanese students who are travelling for their education, whether to a different region or country, is on the decline – and has been since just after 2000.

Bright Futures’ aims to investigate how Chinese and Japanese students and their families make decisions about migrating for education within their own country and overseas.

Starting from a transnational vantage point, our analytical perspective connects educational migrations to transnational convergences, among higher education institutions towards global standards, and among students towards the spread of educational and mobility aspirations.

The research seeks to shed new light on the relationship between educational mobility and broader life course aspirations and orientations, as well as their regional and global dynamics.

‘Bright Futures’ surveyed over 7,000 students, generating a representative sample, comparing and contrasting the experiences of students from the People’s Republic of China who have moved to the UK or Germany to study, with those who have opted to stay at home for their higher education.

Home students in the UK and Germany were also surveyed.

Principal Investigator Professor Yasemin Soysal, from the University of Essex, said:

“Chinese international students should be first and foremost viewed as students, rather than as representing a distinctive national population with common characteristics based on their origins.

“Our survey provides rare representative data on one of the most important flows of international students globally – from China to the UK and Germany. Among students moving for higher education, students from China are the largest group from any one country, making up over 20 percent of the global total.

“We found that students have similar aspirations the world over – they go to university not just to enhance their career prospects, but with broader expectations of realising their worth as a person, gaining new experiences, and meeting different people.

“Furthermore, we find that academic and social backgrounds of Chinese students in Europe are much more heterogenous than previously assumed. Universities should ensure that their policies and practices do not make unwarranted assumptions about this group of students, but approach them as individual students with varied needs, backgrounds and interests, just as they would for their home students.”

A report for the higher education sector on the project, ‘In search of excellence: Chinese students on the move’ will be launched on 10 October in London.

Other key findings are:

  • The top priority for Chinese students is receiving a ‘quality education’ – so rankings of universities and individual subjects at universities are important to them in deciding where to study.
  • Chinese students in Europe are overrepresented in certain subjects, and thus European universities could do more to recruit excellent students from China across the full range of disciplines.  In the UK, the predominance of Chinese students in business and economics (51% of undergraduates and 56% of masters students) contrasts with their relative under-representation in STEM subjects, social sciences and humanities. Germany attracts many more STEM students (61% both for undergraduates and masters students).
  • One of the factors in this pattern of under-recruiting in certain disciplines is cost: 35% of survey respondents at top universities in China who had considered higher education overseas said the main factor in not taking this route was finances.
  • A large majority of Chinese students do not have difficulty in adapting to the new academic environment when they move for higher education: 75% of Chinese international students in the UK said they ‘never/seldom’ have issues with adjustment. 
  • Around half of Chinese undergraduates plan to continue studying after their current degree, mostly in their current country of study (85% for both the UK and Germany), and of those who intend to work, 70% plan to go back to China.
  • Expectations of what students want to gain from their university experience among Chinese students in the UK, Germany and China, as well as among home students in Europe, are very similar.

Following the report’s UK launch at the Great Britain China Centre in London, the findings will be presented at events for the higher education sector in Edinburgh, Brussels and Hong Kong this autumn.

The ‘Bright Futures’ research was conducted by Yasemin Soysal and Dorothee Schneider, University of Essex; Li Qiang and Liu Jingming, Tsinghua University, China; Thomas Faist, Bielefeld University, Germany; Sophia Woodman, University of Edinburgh; and Hector Cebolla-Boado, National Distance Education University, Spain.

Funding for the study came from the Economic and Social Research Council (UK), the DFG (German Research Council) and the National Natural Science Foundation (China).

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