Chinese students are studying abroad in record numbers—then coming home in droves

We’ll be back soon.
We’ll be back soon.
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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More than half a million Chinese students headed overseas for an education in 2015, and another 400,000 returned home—new records for both, according to China’s Ministry of Education.

Since the start of China’s reforms in 1987, a combined 4 million Chinese students have studied abroad, and 2.2 million of them had returned home by the end of last year, the ministry’s report (link in Chinese), published on Mar. 25, shows. Some 523,700 Chinese students headed abroad to study in 2015, up 14% from the previous year. Meanwhile, 409,100 Chinese overseas students returned home last year.

The outbound-to-return ratio in a given year is at around 0.7 to 0.8 in the recent years, meaning most Chinese students have returned home after getting a foreign diploma, the ministry said. Returnees are coming home because the domestic job market in China is more appealing than overseas, Qi Mo, head of the overseas study subdivision of the education ministry, said at a press conference.

But at least in the US, it’s hard for Chinese students to find jobs to stay. Most Chinese students enroll in programs like business and marketing, but overseas job markets and foreign government policies favor technology experts—something Indian students benefit from.

Of Chinese students who returned home in 2015, more than 80% hold a masters degree. The UK was the top spot to earn a masters.

The US is the top destination for a doctoral degree, while South Korea is the top for a bachelor or a three-year college degree.

Nearly half of Chinese overseas students surveyed by the ministry said they would like to find jobs in China’s first-tier cities, down 8% from 2013. That’s because more students from lower tier cities can afford to study abroad. They are more likely to return to their hometown, and job markets there are less fierce, financial media Caixin reported.

Overall, there are more overseas returnees than there is demand for them, Caixin said, citing a report (link in Chinese) showing wages for returnees have declined in recent years.