China is the third most popular international study destination, after UK and US. Source: Shutterstock.

China has become synonymous with international students – not because it welcomes so many of them each year, but because it waves goodbye to more local students than any other country as they head off and seek their education overseas.

But now China is seeing a huge increase in the number of international students arriving on its shores. Since 2004, the number has increased by nearly 300 percent and in the last academic year alone rose 10 percent.

The PIE News reported that in the last 20 years the total number of students studying in China increased from 3.4 million to over 26 million. With 490,000 of these students coming from outside China, the country has very nearly met its 2020 target of attracting 500,000 international students two years early.

Steadily, the country is making a name for itself in the higher education world, and students – both domestic and international – are paying attention. China is the third most popular destination, in terms of total numbers of international student enrolment in the world, coming after the US and UK, a position it has held for the last few years.

If China manages its 2020 target, it will overtake the UK in terms of international student numbers.

“Last year we had the highest number of international students we have had over the last five years,” director of international affairs at The Sino-British College Iris Yuan told The PIE News.

She continued, claiming international student numbers have increased 45 percent over the last year as China attempts to be seen as “a major player internationally in terms of higher education”.

And it seems to be working. China’s reputation is undeniably on the rise as shown by its increase in both domestic and international students.

But why are all these students heading there?

The busy streets of Shanghai may be calling your name. Source: GIPHY.

The increase in international students in China is primarily attributed to four main reasons:

  1. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative
  2. An increased number of English language programmes
  3. Affordability, including an increased number of scholarships
  4. Increased opportunities to obtain working visa/residence permits

The One Belt, One Road initiative

While the One Belt, One Road Initiative, one of the largest overseas investment drives ever, is primarily an infrastructure project, at its core, it is designed to strengthen relations between China and the rest of the world. And education is a key part of this, Yuan explained.

One Belt, One Road is a US$900 billion scheme intended to boost land (the ‘Belt’) and sea (the old ‘Silk Road’) trade routes which go west to Europe via Asia to birth a ‘new era of globalisation’ benefiting the whole region.

Since the unveiling of the initiative in 2013, the number of students arriving in China from India, Indonesia, Laos, Pakistan and numerous other countries involved in the scheme has increased. In the last academic year alone, China saw more than a 20 percent increase in student numbers from these countries compared to the previous year.

But countries along the Silk Road are not the only ones whose home students are travelling to China for their education. In 2015, there were 26 times as many African students studying in China as there were in 2003, placing China just after France for international student numbers from that region.

More English language programmes

The increase in the number of courses taught in English is also considered to be a significant reason why more international students, including those from countries renowned for their higher education such as the US and UK, are flocking to China.

“Most of the universities in China are offering a good number of English taught programmes now,” Yuan claimed, adding “the number of English taught programmes has increased by 63 percent in the last five years”.

In the 10 years between 2005 and 2015, double the number of students from the US began their studies in China and triple the number from the UK.


A large increase in the number of scholarships available to international students in China is also proving to be a persuasive offer. In 2006, just 8,500 scholarships were given out to students from overseas; fast-forward to 2017 and approximately 58,600 were awarded.

“There are so many misconceptions about studying in China,” chief executive of China Admissions Richard Coward told The PIE News. “Things are changing so fast. You’ve really got to be here to see it.”

The cost of studying in China is also significantly lower than places such as the UK or US, making it an attractive destination for students keen to study abroad who are keeping an eye on the price tag.

“To study there means you can get a good degree for cheaper than the UK or the US,” 16-year-old Kate who attended the Student World exhibition in London told The PIE News. She added that, for her, the opportunity to learn the language alongside her studies was a huge plus.

Opportunity to gain visas after graduation

Not only is China trying to attract international students, it also wants to encourage them to remain in the country after they graduate.

Since 2017, international students who obtained a Master’s degree or equivalent or higher level qualification from a Chinese institution within the previous year were eligible to gain a work permit of up to five years.

Many Chinese higher education providers also offer residence permits for international students who wish to undertake paid work or an internship in China directly.

“Foreigners are coming to get a high-quality education at an affordable price,” Coward said. “It is becoming a serious study destination.”

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