China plans to put children off studying abroad as more pupils head overseas at younger ages

Mandy Zuo
·7-min read

Chinese parents are sending their children away to study at increasingly younger ages. It’s a trend the government plans to stamp out.

More than 700,000 Chinese residents moved abroad for study in 2019, a rise of more than 6 per cent from the previous year, according to the latest data from the country’s Ministry of Education. In 2020, despite the global pandemic, there was still an increase in the number of secondary-school students who took courses and exams in preparation of studying abroad.

In a report issued last month by Koolearn, an online education platform used by China’s largest private educational service provider, New Oriental, about 20 per cent of all those who took part in exams for overseas study last year were students at or below grade 12 level, the final year of senior secondary school from which they can go on to higher education.

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In China, students must complete nine years of compulsory education, then sit an entrance exam to win a place at a senior secondary school. Photo: Getty Images
In China, students must complete nine years of compulsory education, then sit an entrance exam to win a place at a senior secondary school. Photo: Getty Images

The Ministry of Education told a national education conference in January that it would build “a mechanism to discourage minors from studying abroad”. However, the ministry did not elaborate on what this would entail. The transcript of the conference was released earlier this month.

It’s not the first time the ministry has expressed concern about the trend of Chinese students moving abroad. In 2016, spokeswoman Xu Mei told a press conference that the ministry didn’t encourage the sending of minors abroad, believing the children were too young to live and study on their own.

It still pays off for Chinese students to study abroad

Twelve-year-old Mingming is one of the growing number of young students below the age for university-level studies whose parents are planning to send them away.

Born and raised in Shanghai, Mingming has attended an international school since grade one (the first year of primary school), his parents choosing the globally recognised International Baccalaureate programme rather than China’s official school curriculum.

With most of the paperwork already completed, he is expected to go to the United States, to a boarding school in Washington, later this year to complete his school education.

China may not be so bad at education, but for the kids it’s just too hard

Mingming’s mother, Dong Hong

In China, students must complete nine years of compulsory education, then sit the senior high school entrance exam, or zhongkao, to win a place at a senior secondary school, which prepares them for university or college. They must sit the national university entrance examination, or gaokao, to earn a place at college or university.

Mingming’s parents, both Chinese nationals, believe that sending him to the US for his high school education is preferable to him facing the crushing pressure of passing the senior high school entrance exam in grade nine at a Chinese school.

In major Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, fewer than 60 per cent of junior high school students are admitted to a senior high school.

More than 700,000 Chinese residents moved abroad for study in 2019. Photo: Getty Images
More than 700,000 Chinese residents moved abroad for study in 2019. Photo: Getty Images

“China may not be so bad at education, but for the kids it’s just too hard,” said Mingming’s mother, Dong Hong. “I know that all roads lead to Rome [for my son]. But I hope the road he takes is not too narrow.”

Academic pressure in the Chinese school system is just one of the reasons Chinese parents give for deciding to send their children abroad for school.

Many parents want their children to have the chance to develop personal interests in addition to doing well academically, but believe China’s rigid education system makes this almost impossible.

Hillary Chung, a 21 year-old Law graduate from Hong Kong, celebrates her graduation outside the London School of Economics. Photo: Getty Images
Hillary Chung, a 21 year-old Law graduate from Hong Kong, celebrates her graduation outside the London School of Economics. Photo: Getty Images

Jia Jia, whose son Yangyang moved to Adelaide, Australia, for grade seven (the first year of junior high school) in 2019, said the family had previously planned to send him abroad for university. However, they decided to bring forward his departure when they realised he had no time for exercise at all after entering junior high school.

Yangyang, who previously studied in a school in the Haidian district of Beijing – an area well known for the high quality of its schools – likes swimming and soccer, but he was unable to enjoy them because of the volume of homework he was required to complete.

“All the messages sent from his teacher about his grades and rankings made us worry that he might not pass the senior high school entrance exam. There’s just too much pressure,” Jia said.

Not all students are mature enough to study abroad

Another factor contributing to the exodus of students from China to study abroad is an increase in the number of wealthy families who believe that an international diploma will give their children better job prospects upon returning home, according to Chu Zhaohui, a senior researcher with the National Institute of Education Sciences.

The rise in the number of children studying abroad was highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic when travel bans and border closures caused widespread panic among parents, who begged the Chinese government to charter flights to bring their children home safely.

However, experts believe the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Chinese students’ studying abroad will be temporary. “They may meet difficulties in terms of transport and so on, but this will be short-term – I’d say no more than three years,” said Chu.

Academic pressure in the Chinese school system is just one of the reasons Chinese parents give for deciding to send their children abroad for school. Photo: Getty Images
Academic pressure in the Chinese school system is just one of the reasons Chinese parents give for deciding to send their children abroad for school. Photo: Getty Images

Wu Dandan, an agent helping Chinese children study in Adelaide, South Australia, said that last year she only received two new students, compared with more than a dozen in 2019.

“There are two mentalities: some parents wish to send the kids abroad as soon as possible because the pressure in China is too big, and many others want to wait and see, because they’re not sure how long this pandemic will last,” she said.

More than 90 per cent of China’s high-net-worth individuals (HNWI) said they would not cancel their kids’ international study plans, but might postpone them, according to a report jointly released by China Citic Bank and the Hurun Report in November.

The government needs to promote a more individualised education and change the way students are evaluated

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director, 21st Century Education Research Institute

Of those whose children were already studying abroad, more than 70 per cent said they would continue studying where they were, the Chinese HNWI Post Covid-19 New Normal newsletter reported.

Chu believes the government needs to encourage employers to use home-grown talent instead of prioritising graduates returning from overseas if it is going to reverse the trend of international study abroad.

“Ultimately, it’s still the family’s own decision based on all the pros and cons. So I don’t think there can be a specific policy that will immediately stop them from getting international education for their children,” he said.

Why do so many Chinese study abroad?

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Shanghai-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, said there was no immediate way to prevent families sending their children abroad, but China should consider a reform of its education system.

To discourage parents such as Dong and Jia from sending their children overseas to study, “the government needs to promote a more individualised education and change the way students are evaluated”, said Xiong.

He flagged another reason for children being sent away to school – China’s notorious hukou, or permanent residence registration system.

“Some kids don’t have a local hukou in the city they live and study, so they are not allowed to take part in the city’s senior high school entrance exam or national college entrance exam, and hence they choose to go abroad,” he said.

“Since the government forbids them from studying in their city, why wouldn’t they go to another country?”

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