The Chinese characters liu xue (study overseas) on a banner as several high school students ask for information about overseas universities at an undergraduate recruitment consulting event in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu province. Lang Congliu / For China Daily
Average age of those going overseas falls as many spurn college exam
BEIJING - While millions of her peers are revising intensively for this year's national college entrance exam, which falls on June 7 and 8, Su Zixuan is able to feel rather more relaxed.
After getting an offer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in March, the 17-year-old is one of thousands of Chinese students heading overseas for her higher education.
The number of Chinese students studying abroad has rapidly increased in recent years. For the 2009 to 2010 academic year, a total of 229,300 Chinese students were being educated abroad, up 30 percent from the previous year, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Education.
"Since 2000, the number of Chinese students abroad increased at an average annual rate of 20 percent. By 2014, the number is expected to hit 550,000 to 600,000," said Sang Peng, director of the Beijing Overseas-Study Service Association.
Industry experts pointed out that there is a prevailing trend of Chinese students studying overseas at a younger age.
"Not long ago, the majority of Chinese students went abroad to pursue a master's degree or PhD. Undergraduates only accounted for 30 percent of the total," said Richard Yang, director of Aoji Enrolment Center of International Education Ltd, part of the Aoji Education Group.
It is likely this will change over the next three years. Those in high school or undertaking undergraduate studies are expected to make up 70 percent of those being educated abroad. Of them, students in higher education will make up 30 percent, Yang said.
Chen Hua, business director of Beijing-based intermediary agency Wiseway International Co Ltd, believes high school graduates will become the main component of students studying abroad from 2011.
This trend is also reflected in the fact that the number of Chinese students sitting the college entrance exam is in a downward trend.
Some 9.57 million high school students across China registered to take the college entrance exam in 2010, approximately 650,000 fewer than the previous year, and 930,000 fewer than 2008, figures from the Ministry of Education showed.
In Beijing, it is the fifth year in a row that the numbers have fallen. About 76,000 students signed up to take the exam this year, down 6 percent from a year earlier, marking the lowest ever application level, according to Beijing Education Examination Authority.
So, what is behind the lowering age of overseas Chinese students?
First, going abroad is an alternative to the national college entrance exam, which has long been described as a stampede of "thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of horses across a single log bridge".
"I decided to send my 14-year-old son to Australia for his high school education this autumn because there is too much pressure on him to prepare for the college entrance exam," said Zhang Ran, a manager of a pharmaceutical company in Beijing.
"The enormous pressure will definitely harm a child's physical and mental health, and I don't think it's worthwhile that all the hard work goes into a one-time exam," he added.
Lu Jun, a senior consultant at Chivast Education International Co, which is the first approved intermediary agency by the Ministry of Education, said most Chinese parents firmly believe that the younger their children go abroad, the sooner they get accustomed to the local cultural and social environment.
Studying abroad can cultivate young students to be more independent and more adaptable to new environments. These abilities will help them in job-hunting in the future, said Lu.
"Generally speaking, overseas schools provide a more flexible learning environment and pay more attention to students' soft skills such as decision-making, initiative, leadership, teamwork and sociability, which are often lacking in a Chinese school's curriculum," he said.
Last but not least, the demand of Chinese students to study abroad has also been driven by rising incomes of Chinese families.
In the next decade, the population of China's middle class will reach some 400 million from its current 150 million, according to the Boston Consulting Group forecast.
Currently, total costs, including tuition fees and living expenses, of studying in a high school in the United States range between 200,000 yuan and 250,000 yuan a year, according to Yan Tingting, director of the US and Canada business division at Aoji Education Group
Studying in other countries, such as Canada and Australia, would cost 150,000 yuan to 200,000 yuan annually, said Yan.
Intermediary agencies, such as Aoji and Wiseway, provide services that assist students through their entire application process, including language test preparation, application documentation and visa interview training. The average cost is 10,000 to 30,000 yuan for one student.
Chinese students' enthusiasm for studying abroad at a younger age has prompted not only more and more intermediary agencies to enter the market, but also many top high schools to change.
Many students, including Su Zixuan, decided not to sit the rigid exam long before they graduated from middle schools and chose to study in specialized classes rather than at ordinary public high schools.
Three years ago, Su enrolled in a Cambridge International Examinations A-Level Course at the high school affiliated to Renmin University of China in Beijing.
The course has about 120 students every year and the tuition fee is 80,000 yuan annually. After graduation, students can get a high school diploma recognized by universities in more than 160 countries and regions, according to the school.
"About 60 percent of our teachers are foreigners and all of our text books are in English. What we are learning here is very similar to high school students in the UK or US," said Su.
"I believe these kinds of international courses can help students to overcome the language barrier and to better adapt to foreign teaching methods. Students can also improve their ability to take care of themselves before leaving home during this three-year high school period," said Huang Ping, Su's mother.
Moreover, this saves a large amount of money compared with going straight to an overseas high school, she added.
Other cities across the country, including Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hangzhou, have also introduced special classes for students who intend to study overseas.
However, some experts warned that studying abroad at younger ages could be a double-edged sword for Chinese students.
"The psychological fragility of many young students is a big concern," said Bai Zhangde, director general of the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange under the Ministry of Education.
Those who leave their homes and their parents at a young age will suffer from loneliness and homesickness and they can easily feel isolated in a strange environment, he added.
Those who are too young to tell right from wrong may indulge in improper or even illegal activities without the guidance of their parents, he said.
(China Daily 04/25/2011 page13)