5 ways China can attract US students back to its universities again

SCMP | June 20 , 2024

From SCMP, 2024-6-20

■ From the easing of visas to a more international curriculum, China’s universities and wider society can do more to make US students feel at home.

By Wang Huiyao | Founder of the Center for China and Globalization(CCG)


Amid the turbulence of China-US relations, a stabilising force has stood the test of time: exchanges between people, particularly educational exchanges. International students are a bedrock of ties, their experiences fostering understanding and building vital bridges between the two nations.

As the world’s leading destination for international students, the US has long attracted Chinese students seeking a top-notch education and cross-cultural experiences.

The recent report on international talent mobility, by the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG), highlights the pivotal role of the US in shaping global talent flows.

Despite geopolitical tensions, Chinese enthusiasm for an American education remains unabated. Last year, the number of Chinese students in the US rebounded to 77.7 per cent of the pre-pandemic level in 2019. China remained the largest source of international students in the US, according to CCG research. This shows the unwavering appeal of American universities.

But educational exchanges should not be a one-way street. As China continues on its development journey, it is imperative to attract more international students, especially from the US. While China has made strides in this regard, there is still room for improvement.

In a worrying trend, the number of Americans studying in China has plummeted in recent years. US ambassador to China Nicholas Burns revealed at a Brookings Institution talk last December that the figure had fallen to just 700, a sharp decline from the 15,000 recorded six or seven years ago. “Last year [2022], we were down to 350 American students in all of China,” he noted.

This year, we expect to see an increase in the number of American students coming to China, including at US-China partnership campuses such as the Duke Kunshan University, NYU Shanghai, Wenzhou-Kean University, Tianjin Juilliard School and Hopkins-Nanjing Centre.

But there is still a stark imbalance in educational exchanges and this underscores the need for China to enhance its appeal as a study destination. Doing so would not only enrich its higher education landscape but also contribute to more balanced and robust exchanges between the people of both countries.

To achieve this, China can draw inspiration from the CCG report’s recommendations and take steps to create a more welcoming environment for international students.

Global Talent Mobility and Governance Report ——Analysis with the United States as a Hub(2024)

First, streamlining visa policies and application processes would make it easier for American students to study in China. Introducing more flexible visa categories, such as internship visas for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students and talent visas for outstanding graduates, would incentivise more Americans to consider China as a study destination.

Second, China should strive to create a more inclusive environment for international students by encouraging an open and inclusive public attitude towards international students. It will deepen people’s understanding of their role in fostering cultural exchange, creating a more welcoming social environment.

Third, internationalising the curriculum and expanding English-taught programmes would cater to the needs and preferences of international students. Chinese universities should be encouraged to develop interdisciplinary and globally oriented courses that better align with the interests of American students.

Fourth, enhancing the living environment for international students is crucial. Efforts should be made to address practical challenges, such as facilitating mobile payments for foreigners and providing convenient internet access. Schools and communities can use their unique resource advantages to provide language training and cultural adaptation programmes for international students. Creating a more internationalised campus atmosphere and offering tailored support services would help international students feel more at home in China.

Fifth, promoting cultural exchange programmes and partnerships between Chinese and American universities would foster deeper understanding and collaboration. Encouraging joint research projects, faculty exchanges and student mobility programmes would create more opportunities for meaningful interactions between Chinese and American students.

While implementing these measures, China can also draw lessons from the US approach to attracting international students. The CCG report highlights the US strategy of offering scholarships, simplifying visa processes and providing employment opportunities for international graduates. By adopting similar practices and tailoring them to the Chinese context, China can enhance its competitiveness in the global race for talent.

Moreover, China’s recent efforts to boost international tourism provide a solid foundation for attracting more foreign students. In the first quarter of this year, inbound tourism in China exhibited a strong recovery, with more than four times as many foreign visitors as the same period last year, according to the National Immigration Administration.

The easing of travel restrictions and improvement of tourism infrastructure have made China a more accessible and appealing destination. Building upon these achievements, China can further develop its education tourism sector, showcasing its rich cultural heritage and modern advancements to potential international students.

As the CCG report emphasises, people-to-people exchanges are not only essential to promote understanding and friendship between nations but also to drive economic growth and innovation. By attracting more American students to study in China, the country can tap a diverse pool of talent, foster cross-cultural collaboration and contribute to the development of a more interconnected and cooperative world.

In a time of geopolitical challenges, educational exchanges serve as a powerful reminder of the shared aspirations and common humanity that bind us. By investing in exchanges and creating a more welcoming environment for international students, China can strengthen the ballast stone of its relationship with the US and pave the way to a brighter future of mutual understanding and cooperation.

From SCMP, 2024-6-20