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Students Again Make Beeline to US Colleges
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More than four years since the September 11 attacks on its soil, the United States is relaxing its strict visa requirements and many Chinese students see this year the best time to apply to US universities.

At the same time, growth in the number of Chinese students in the United Kingdom is slowing for the first time, according to some experts. The London-based Financial Times reports a drop in the number of Chinese students and predicts the decline will be permanent.

British educational officials reject suggestions that numbers are falling, although students did tell that there was room for improvement in the recruitment strategies of British universities in China.

British universities should, the students said, publicize themselves better in China, and rethink perceptions of Chinese graduates in China, if they wish to expand their market share of Chinese students.

"They have to do so quickly. Otherwise, a number of those who feel that the expected returns from some degrees have not kept up with the huge increase in fees will choose to stay home or turn to the US, which is being more active than ever in reaching Chinese students," said Pang Shaohong, who is applying to study in the United Kingdom.

The United States has been more proactive about promoting its educational programmes in China, and will soon bring in changes to its visa regulations for Chinese students, according to Frank Mok, US-China Education Resource Coordinator of the US Embassy in Beijing.

They can start applying for a US visa 120 days before their programmes begin, instead of the 90 days allowed now. They can also arrive in the US 45 days ahead of that date, 15 days more than now, he said.

The tightening of visa requirements since September 11 is frequently cited by Chinese students as a deterring factor.

"We have seen too many rumours on the street and too many eligible students who gave up the chance to study in the US, choosing to go to other countries," said Mok.

The number of Chinese studying in the United States has been around 60,000 a year since 2001.

During the same period, British universities enjoyed a so-called "Chinese bubble." Chinese enrolments have skyrocketed in the United Kingdom, from 10,000 in 2001-02 to around 53,000 in 2004-05, according to Jazreel Goh, education marketing director of the British Council in Beijing.

But London's Financial Times points to a "steep fall in the number of Chinese students studying in Britain, which represents a permanent reverse to decade-long growth."

A survey released in February by Universities UK, an umbrella organization for 121 universities and colleges, found that while international recruitment by some universities has held up well this year, others have received far fewer students than they budgeted for, according to the Financial Times report.

Statistics from the website of Britain's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show a 13.6 per cent fall to 2,766 applications from Chinese students received by the January 15 closing date for admission to undergraduate degree courses in the United Kingdom beginning in autumn 2006.

But Goh from the British Council disagreed with reports of a drop in numbers, saying the UCAS figures can be inaccurate. "The UCAS didn't count the more and more Chinese undergraduate programme applicants who get into direct contact with admission offices of British universities and in this way bypass the UCAS," she said.

"With their high-quality degrees and long histories, British universities are still a priority choice for Chinese students," Goh said.

Chinese student Pang Shaohong disagrees. The Nanjing college student believes many Chinese students and their parents are disillusioned with the UK higher education system. Pang said that five years ago, many people in China "assumed that all British universities were of equal standing and quality, similar to Oxford and Cambridge."

But he said attitudes to UK universities are changing and that Chinese students now "realize that the universities are actually very diverse." Pang is applying for a UK graduate programme when he graduates from a college in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province, in 2007.

"It will be too difficult for me to find a job with my undergraduate degree, and a foreign higher degree may help," he said. "A good British degree sounds better than an Australian one, and the UK looks more accessible than the US to Chinese students."

But Pang had trouble choosing a university in the United Kingdom. "My parents and I had never heard of any good British universities except Oxford and Cambridge when we began the application procedure," he said.

Nicolas Zhang had the same problem. The 24-year-old has an MSC in Management from the University of Bath in England and is looking for work. "Every educated urbanite in China seems able to name a list of the 10 best universities in the US, but in terms of British universities they know only the top two," he said.

"I always have to explain that my university is one of the top five in the UK when my potential bosses nod and say that its name is funny."

Chinese students can research British university rankings on the Internet and in the British Council offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu, said British educational official Goh.

But Zhang says it is still imperative that lesser-known British universities publicize themselves in China.

"They can not only recruit more Chinese students but also help their Chinese graduates find jobs by doing so," he said.

Zhang added that he is relying on the reputation of his university to distinguish himself and get away from prevailing attitudes in China about overseas study.

"A number of people here believe those students who go to Britain have little else but rich parents. They go there because they cannot enter good Chinese universities," he said.

According to Goh from the British Council, the reality is that Chinese students in the United Kingdom are mostly hard working and talented. She says those who don't do as well on British campuses only account for a very small percentage of Chinese students.

Goh also said the expansion and rise in quality of Chinese higher education is the primary reason for any possible slowdown of growth in the number of Chinese students studying in the United Kingdom in the future.

Chinese Ministry of Education statistics show that Chinese universities and colleges admitted 4.75 million students in 2005, 19 per cent more than in 2004 and 24 per cent more than in 2003.

But according to Cai Junjie, consultant at the Gold-Road Overseas Studies Consulting Co Ltd, one of the largest firms of its kind in China, a number of Chinese students who were originally planning to study in the United Kingdom will now go to the United States instead.

"Among those students who are applying for US universities with our help, more than one fourth originally planned to go to Britain, Australia, Canada or New Zealand, but they turned to the US after hearing that it is much easier than before to get its visa," he said.

Since the United States adapted its visa regulations for Chinese students in September 2005, Cai's company has received more and more queries from students wanting to study there, surpassing the number enquiring about the United Kingdom for the first time in the last three years, according to company figures for December 2005.

"Since this January we have been offering our expertise about studying in the US to between 30 and 40 students every day," said Cai. "The spring of studying in the US has finally arrived after a long winter."

Zhang Zhe, a consultant with the Beijing Chivast Overseas Studies Consulting Co Ltd, one of the largest overseas education agencies in Beijing, said the number of students his company is helping to apply for programs in the United States is more than twice what it was at the same time last year.

Both consultants agreed that while the majority of Chinese students wanting to go to the United States apply for graduate programs, the number applying for undergraduate programs is on the rise.

"This growth results mainly from US universities applying a more and more favourable policy on the admission of Chinese undergraduate students who are able to pay their full tuition fees," said Zhang.

Mok, from the US Embassy in Beijing, says 2005 saw a slight increase in the number of Chinese students studying in the United States. He predicts the number will rise again in 2006. "I believe we will meet a record-breaking year," Mok said.

"Our Institute of International Education (IIE), the public affairs and consular sections of the embassy and consulates in China, have joined forces to explain that the US is welcoming international students, including Chinese students," he said.

The IIE began hosting a series of US education seminars in China in 2003. It is planning to host the seminars again in Beijing and Shanghai in October.

(China Daily April 5, 2006)

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