Each June, young Chinese people applying to study overseas undergo perhaps the most anxious time in their lives, as they queue up in front of foreign embassies and wait for their visas. This year, however, some embassies have been saying they have not received as many applicants as in the past, according to an official with the British Embassy in China.
"More and more Chinese students seem to be losing interest in overseas study, as the number of applicants to study in Britain, the United States, and Australia have all dropped to their historically lowest point," said the official, refusing to give his name.
One reason could be that the Chinese Government is starting to investigate some Chinese students living abroad whose parents have been involved in corruption cases in China. Hu Benwei, a senior staff member with a company helping students in organizing their overseas studies, based in Beijing, revealed that one-fifth of 50 such companies have recently shut down due to a lack of customers. Statistics from Hu's firm show the number of Chinese studying overseas was 100,000 last year, down from 120,000 in 2003.
Such a decline can be clearly seen in major destinations for Chinese students such as Britain and the United States. The British newspaper, the Financial Times, has reported that Chinese students pursuing undergraduate study in Britain drastically dropped by 25.8 per cent last year on the previous year. A US authorized investigation also found overseas students for graduate study went down by 32 per cent -- Chinese students make up the largest proportion of overseas students.
Aspiring Chinese students have dreamed of going abroad ever since the late 1970s when China first adopted its opening-up policies. With rising personal incomes, those who could not realize the dream themselves focused instead on their children, often spending their savings on sending them to experience life as a student abroad.
A report from the Higher Education Statistics Agency of Britain said that from 2003 to 2004, more than 47,000 students from the Chinese mainland studied in more than 100 British universities, accounting for nearly one-sixth of overseas students in Britain.
Hu said fewer students are now going to study abroad because of the costs involved, and the fact that many graduates often get very low salaries.
He said the average annual income of a Chinese family in a medium-size city is around 80,000 yuan (US$9,700), while a child studying in Britain will spend 200,000 to 250,000 yuan (US$24,000 to US$30,000) a year. Expenditure for a child in Australia and the United States can cost as much as 130,000 yuan (US$15,700) and 300,000 (US$36,200), respectively.
However, it was reported earlier this year that a Chinese student returning to China without any work experience could expect a monthly income of 2,500 to 4,000 yuan (US$302 to US$483), on average.
"I wonder how long it will be before I can pay off my college debts," said a worried Wu Dan, a Chinese student in Australia.
Sources with the Chinese Ministry of Education said that from 1978 to 2002, more than 580,000 Chinese students went overseas to study. But only around 150,000 have returned.
Most officials with foreign embassies in China said the increase of Sino-foreign joint education programmes and the improvement of Chinese higher education have also encouraged some Chinese to stay at home for advanced studies. At present, there are around 80 education programmes jointly run by China and Britain. The rapid increase of foreign investment in China has also inspired Chinese young people.
The number of Chinese students with no scholarships studying in British independent schools last year also dropped by 8 per cent to 1,020, which, as the British Independent School Council commented, "has greatly influenced the industry."
In fact, more and more Chinese parents do not dare to send their children abroad due to the "high risk" involved in their educational investment.
Wu Ling, a Chinese scholar doing her doctoral degree research at Warwick University in Britain, said the decrease in students with no scholarships was related to the crackdown on corruption by the Chinese Government.
"Many corruption cases involving high-ranking officials in recent days were initiated because of their children, who studied and lived like the upper class in foreign countries," she explained. She said provinces and regions where severely corrupt officials were indicted had more self-funded students than other areas.
Insiders have revealed the Chinese Government has dispatched an expert team to investigate Chinese overseas students, in a bid to work out solutions to emerging problems.
Many Chinese students lead a high life abroad, and some of them are children of officials, whose salaries cannot possibly support their luxurious overseas lives.
However, some foreign embassy officials said most self-funded students come from normal families.
"It is undeniable that such a move by the government has made some of the privileged more careful," Wu Ling said.
Miao Hui, a Chinese student, said complicated procedures for visa approval has also led to many of her compatriots losing interest in studying overseas.
Overseas study services agent Hu Benwei said the British Government has tightened its visa policies on overseas study and immigration, due to the two major British parties' competing to win the recent general election.
Incomplete statistics show that in 2003 the number of Chinese students approved to study overseas in Britain was 25,000, but the number last year was just 15,000.
Facing a similar decrease of Chinese students going to the United States, an official with the US Embassy in China said the US Government will do all it can to make the lives of such students as convenient as possible.
(China Daily June 3, 2005)