Why are Chinese graduates are saying "no" to US universities?

The issuance of student visas to Chinese students plummeted from about 100,000 in 2021 to just 58,000 in 2022.

Why are Chinese graduates are saying "no" to US universities?
Students stand at a school during a flag-lowering ceremony on the first day of the new academic year in Shanghai, China, September 1, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song

The backstory: Over the past few decades, Chinese students have been flocking to American universities to pursue higher education. This trend was driven by the quest for better academic opportunities, a diverse range of programs and access to cutting-edge technology. US universities have earned a global reputation for their research and innovation, making them an attractive destination for high-performing students. Also, many Chinese students wanted to boost their career prospects and English-language skills by studying in the US. 

For instance, in 1989, out of 2,251 graduates from Tsinghua University, about 1,600 chose to pursue further education in the US. Before 2020, Chinese students made up about a third of all international students in the US, totaling around 370,000 students, according to data from the Institute of International Education (IIE).

More recently: This trend has taken a sharp downturn in recent years. The issuance of student visas to Chinese students plummeted from about 100,000 in 2021 to just 58,000 in 2022. Take Tsinghua University graduates as an example. Only 7% of graduates, whether at the undergraduate or postgraduate level, were considering studying abroad. This is in stark contrast to the situation in 2017, when 28% of undergraduates were exploring international education opportunities. This shift isn't unique to Tsinghua, as Peking University also shows a similar pattern.

The development: Shen Wenqin, an associate professor at Peking University, has been closely monitoring this trend since 2016. He said China's brightest minds in fields like maths, physics and chemistry wanted to study abroad in the past. But things have changed, and now more and more graduates are choosing to stay put in China. 

So, what's causing this decline in Chinese students going for international education? Shen points out that while COVID restrictions did play a part, they aren't the only reason. China's rapid growth in different academic fields is a big factor. For example, if students can't get a computer science degree in the US, they're more likely to stay in China, which has become a global leader in tech and is also home to major tech companies. Shen talked to students from leading Chinese universities and they consistently mentioned Western-trained teachers as a big reason for choosing to study and do research in China.

Shen also believes this shift could benefit China by keeping more talent at home. But if this trend continues, it might slow China's scientific progress, as sending young talent to developed countries and maintaining global academic exchanges has been a key driver of China's advancement. 

Key comments: 

"The pandemic is a disruption, but it is not the main reason," said Shen Wenqin, an associate professor from the School of Education at Peking University. 

"China is experiencing a fast rise in many academic fields," said Shen Wenqi. "For example, if students are restricted from getting a computer science qualification in the US, they are less likely to seek an alternative in Germany, the UK, or other countries because China is also a leading power and it harbors so many big tech companies."

"One of the most important ways that American universities promote mutual understanding between countries – while also advancing US interests – is by educating students from around the world," said a Foreign Affairs article published last month.