A Chinese degree now means a brighter future for Southeast Asians
China's education is now highly attractive for Southeast Asians. Source: Reuters/Aly Song

Scholarships. Better job prospects. Affordable tuition fees.

With all these and more, China is now a very attractive study destination for young Southeast Asians looking to pursue a higher education abroad.

According to a Channel News Asia feature, Southeast Asians are now the biggest group of students in the country’s colleges and universities, surpassing South Korea and the United States. An estimated 80,000 students in Chinese universities are from Southeast Asian countries – that’s a 15 percent increase from 2015, figures from the Chinese Education Ministry-linked China University and College Admission System (CUCAS) show.

A chance at better job prospects after graduating was the key reason for Pingpanya Phommilath from Laos to choose to study in China.

The 21-year-old pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public administration at Fudan University told Channel News Asia:

“China is becoming stronger and its economy is getting bigger … There are many Chinese in my country. So studying in China means better prospects (for me).”

Generous scholarships awarded as part of China’s grand Belt and Road Initiative appear to have paid off in its success to attract more Southeast Asians to the country as part of its foreign policy to strengthen ties with the Asean bloc.

CUCAS estimates about 50,400 scholarship were awarded in 2016, covering scholars’ tuition, accommodation and monthly living expenses.

About 23 billion yuan (US$3.6 billion) was allocated for these scholarships in 2016, according to Lucian Koh, Managing Director of Singapore Success Stories.

He explains how this is a form of soft power expansion for China:

“China can post these talents who have graduated from here back into their respective home countries to develop infrastructure, financial services, logistics services for China.”

“For China to be more accepted in the global community in terms of its rise as a new superpower, it starts with people.”

“In Chinese, they call them ‘Zhihua Youhua’ students which means (students) who know China and are friendly to China – these graduates will be the best ambassadors for the country.”

It’s also the wide availability of courses taught entirely in English that is helping China cement its position as one of the top study destinations in the world. In China’s top 150 universities, at least a fifth of degree programmes is offered entirely in English, including popular courses such as business, medicine and engineering.

Coupled with affordable fees, it is a big draw for Southeast Asians, like Malaysian businessman Lee Kwok Yat, who was looking for a less costly option in getting his daughter a medical degree.

A medicine course taught in English in China is slightly over RM200,000 (US$64,000). For Lee, that saved him almost half of what such a course in a private university in Malaysia would have cost for his daughter.

“In Malaysia, if you want to go to a public university, it’s very, very difficult. And to study in a private medical school will easily cost RM500,000 (US$128,000). So I think its too much for me.”

Education is part of China’s One Belt, One Road mega-plan for global trade too. Source: Shutterstock

But among all the positives, there can be downsides to Chinese universities.

Some students complain about the intense competition from domestic students. Another is the research restrictions when it comes to politically-sensitive research topics, such as those pertaining to the Uighur Muslim minority group. Jolene Liew, 23, from Brunei takes this in stride, however, saying that the overall experience of having “eastern oriental viewpoints” balances her “western bias”

“I take this as an opportunity for me to learn new aspect(s) of life, as well as to prove to people that you don’t necessarily have to go to the west to enjoy quality, academic experiences, or even to learn something new,” she said.

China is also the biggest source of international students worldwide – there are 847,259 citizens studying abroad. According to Unesco figures, there are 291,063 Chinese students in the United States, 112,329 in Australia and 91,518 in United Kingdom.

In Malaysia, there are 10,899 Chinese citizens studying at its universities making it the Asean country hosting the highest number of Chinese students.

Liked this? Then you’ll love these…

The maths question primary students in China (& everybody else) can’t solve

Hong Kong student activists nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, angering China