Why Chinese students choose to study overseas

The title of this post is misleading as it suggests that Chinese students might decide to study abroad themselves. In some cases, it is their own decision, but the vast majority of the time, Chinese students are sent overseas to study by their parents, and often the child play little, if any, part in the decision-making process. There are many reasons why Chinese students end up in boarding schools and universities in the English-speaking world, and each family will have their reasons for their decision. Still, it’s probably fair to draw upon a few generalizations to explain the phenomenon.


PISA data tells us that China is a world leader in education. Arguably, the most important reason Chinese students study abroad is the perception that there are more advanced educational systems in the English-speaking world. Subsequently, the life chances of the child are enhanced by “western” education. In itself, this is an interesting phenomenon. China is a world leader in education if one takes PISA tests at face value. The relative positions of the US and UK (the two leading countries of destination for Chinese students) are relatively low. The efficacy of PISA testing per se, and especially its accuracy in assessing the quality of education in China, is hotly debated. Like the Brookings Institute, some like the fact that China’s standing on the PISA league table is only reflective of performance in a few select provinces (Shanghai, Macau, Hong Kong) rather than across the whole country. Thus, the Chinese parents who choose to send their children abroad are looking for something beyond PISA rankings when they decide to send their children to foreign high schools, for if they valued PISA data, they would seek out a top school in Shanghai, Macau or Hong Kong rather than in Berkshire or New Hampshire. 

American and British Universities are the best in the world


League tables tell a different story when it comes to higher education. It is far more apparent why Chinese students, or their parents, choose British or American institutions at this level of education. After all, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings are dominated by colleges in the U.K. and the U.S., and only two schools in China make the Top 100. Thus, it is no wonder that thousands of students in China apply to universities in the west. Moreover, China’s fuerdai (which roughly translates as nouveau riche) can afford the fees charged by the western universities and can thus access an Ivy League or Oxbridge education, or in more cases, an unconditional offer from the John the Baptist Bible College of Southern Mississippi.

A better living environment

Perhaps another fallacy is that life is better in North America or Europe than in the Far East. Whilst most economic indicators would support this viewpoint, when one delves deeper, the premise of the assumption becomes less clear-cut. For example, most young Chinese people are unlikely to encounter drunkenness, loutishness or violent crime in their own country, whereas anti-social behaviour is more common in the west. The drinking cultures in the UK comes as a culture shock to many international students who may believe that British students do not know when to stop drinking.

A more promising future career

Many Chinese families believe that they are opening a more promising future career by sending their children abroad. This may be true, especially if the young person graduates from one of the best universities, but it isn’t easy at this point in history to ascertain whether the perception is the reality. It may also be problematic for those who have completed their education overseas to return to China and compete with their peers who have remained in the Chinese educational sector.

Opportunities to learn to be independent and to broaden their horizons


At least, in theory, the opportunity to study overseas should offer Chinese students’ real chances to develop their independence and broaden their horizons. Life in another culture is a learning experience in itself. However, Chinese students often end up interacting almost exclusively with other Chinese students whilst living overseas. Some institutions deliberately seek to provide an educational environment that is conducive to students from China. Still, in doing so, they may inadvertently undermine part of the experience of international education that many parents crave for their children. Only the more socially astute and outgoing Chinese students frequently socialize with students from their host country. This may mean that far from broadening their horizons, most Chinese students end up living their lives in a “bubble” with little opportunity to learn to be independent.

All kids are going aboard to study – Keeping up with the Jones’

Like any other society, parents in China are influenced by what other people are doing. To some, there is a certain gravitas in sending their children to study in the UK or USA, and others feel pressure to conform to what might be normal behaviour within their social group. Whilst this might seem like a frivolous reason to send one’s children away to study overseas, its influence cannot be denied. “Losing face” is considered a severe social stigma in Chinese society, and in reality, it does have a real impact on parents’ decision-making. Many parents are above making decisions about their children based on such reasons, but “keeping up with the Jones’s” is a factor for some when making these decisions.

Following my child’s wish

Many parents believe that by sending their child overseas to study, they follow their child’s wish. There may be some degree of truth in this, but it is a highly nuanced area. Many Chinese students view western education through rose-tinted spectacles and as the antithesis of a more traditional mode of education in their homeland. However, it is unlikely that the average teenager in China has more than a superficial awareness of UK or US education. Many young Chinese will have more knowledge of education in the west than a western teenager would have of the Chinese system. Still, often their ideas are based upon anecdote and something of a utopian ideal of the English-speaking world of education.

Another problem is that parents may feel that they are following their child’s desire for English-medium education. In fact, they have effectively brainwashed their children into believing western education is superior to education in the east. Similarly, some young people have a passive relationship with their parents and effectively internalize their parents’ desires as their own. Rather than harbouring their ambitions to study abroad, the young person is often fulfilling the expectations of their family.

The role of agents


If you visit any international education / bilingual school in China, you will undoubtedly hear about how agents are exploiting Chinese parents and students by selling them an idyllic model of education in Europe or North America. Arguments around the role of agents are far from simplistic, though, despite what school leaders might suggest. In the main, agents are universally despised and demonized by school leaders for poaching students. Being an agent in the sphere of education in China is a lucrative business. Parents will pay vast sums of money to agents who guarantee that they will place their child in an elite school or university in the west. In many cases, the agents do deliver what they promise, but there are also thousands of cases where families have been left disappointed. Most international education schools employ at least one full-time University Guidance Officer with a mandate to work with students to help them secure places at appropriate universities. Obviously, a UGO has a vested interest to persuade a student to complete their studies at their school and to make a move overseas after their A-Levels or IB Diploma. Still, at the same time, a UGO is salaried and perhaps is in a more objective position to offer balanced advice than an agent who makes their living from commissions.

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