China’s students cherish US education dream, despite year of uncertainty

Zhuang Pinghui

Chinese students in the US have been caught in the crossfire of the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing but, so far, many young people in China still regard the United States as a dream destination for a quality education.

Among them is 18-year-old Cassie Tan, who refused to be deterred despite a long and bumpy journey through the application process and the objections of her parents, who were concerned about the frequent stories of campus shootings as well as the icy US-China relationship.

Tan, who has dreamed of studying in the US since middle school, “spent a fortune” trying to arrange an opportunity to sit the American college entrance exam.

The Hong Kong test centre was hit by delays caused by the ongoing anti-government protests, forcing her to compete for slots at snap exams in South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Thailand. When all these efforts failed, Tan paid an agency to organise her a place but that did not work out either.

The US is still a popular choice for Chinese students despite recent visa difficulties. Photo: Xinhua

Finally, she sat the exam in Hong Kong and received an offer to study communications at a university in New York. Despite the difficulties caused, Tan said, by “political reasons in Hong Kong and the US”, she would go through it all again for the opportunity to study in the United States.

“The US has the best educational resources and the most universities ranked in the world’s top 100. I don’t think I would go for other countries like Britain or Canada,” Tan said.

A spike in delays and rejections for Chinese student visas to the US prompted China’s education ministry to issue a warning in June to its citizens seeking to study there to “raise their risk assessment”. The ministry also said many Chinese students already in the US had faced visa restrictions and their renewals delayed or even rejected.

Statistics from the China Scholarship Council showed 182 people – or 13.5 per cent of students sent to the US on Chinese government scholarships in the first quarter of 2019 – could not make the trip because of visa problems. In the previous year, only 3.2 per cent of the 10,313 scholarship holders had similar difficulties.

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According to US independent think tank Migration Policy Institute, visas issued to international student, including to their spouses and children, fell by 27 per cent in 2018 compared with three years earlier. But the number of students from China had fallen by 54 per cent over the same period.

A joint report by the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) and Institute of International Education (IIE) released last month said the number of international students enrolled in US higher education declined by 2.3 per cent between March 2018 and March 2019.

It said the largest drop was among students pursuing associate degrees or English language training and said heightened scrutiny of Chinese students may have been a contributory factor.

The government warning did not deter Sheldon Zhang from Nanjing, in the eastern province of Jiangsu. The straight-A student applied for a number of Ivy League universities while his peers were still preparing for the mainland college entrance exams. He was accepted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he will study mathematics.

“The education in the US is No 1 in the world. My boy is very good at studies and would like to go. We made the decision since we can afford it,” Zhang’s mother said, shrugging off the possible impact of US-China tensions.

“It is not something that we can control and I believe the US government will not block the access of Chinese students. It’s a big source of income [for the US universities] after all,” she said.

According to the 2019 “Open Doors Report”, released in November by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of Chinese students in the US rose 1.7 per cent in the 2018-19 academic year compared with the previous year.

The report, based on a survey of more than 2,800 US schools, found nearly 370,000 Chinese students enrolled in the 2018-19 academic year, making China the largest source of international students in the US for the 10th consecutive year, although the trend is continuing to slow.

An international education insider said further growth was expected in the near future, but the long-term trend was hard to predict.

The University of Illinois, one of the top 10 universities in the US with the most international students, saw a slight increase in its 2019-20 intake of students from China over the previous year, from 5,797 to 5,825 graduate and undergraduate students.

At the University of Southern California, enrolments of students from China also rose, to 6,626 in 2019-20, from 5,480. A few dozen more Chinese students accepted their offers and were enrolled at the University of California but, at the same time, UC Davis saw a significant decline, from 1,041 to 698 students.

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“According to the current data, there is no decline in the number of Chinese students staying in the US and it will continue to go up for at least two years, but the trend in the next few years will be questionable,” said Li Yijing, general manager of MentorX, an agency specialising in study and career advice for Chinese students in the US.

“How much the number grows really depends on how Chinese parents interpret trade frictions between China and the US.”

Certain majors, such as aerospace, may be affected, but it was not something most students needed to worry about, Li said.

The US last year shortened the duration of visas for Chinese graduate students in certain science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields from five years to one year, and Chinese researchers in the US have been subject to intensified scrutiny from Capitol Hill, scientific funding agencies and national security agencies, out of concerns about the risk of espionage and intellectual property theft.

Paul Turner, regional director for IIE East Asia, said the “vast majority” of Chinese students should not worry about visa restrictions.

“I think it’s become more possible when there is research involved about defence. Probably, where there have been problems, there will be more problems. I don’t think there is any significant change in the visa acceptance rate,” Turner said. “For STEM students, especially the undergraduates, I don’t think there is a policy by the US government to try and restrict these students.”

Doors to America closing for Chinese graduates in hi-tech fields

However, Zhou Mansheng, deputy director of the Chinese Society of Educational Development Strategy, a group administered by China’s education ministry, was less optimistic and predicted that Chinese students would steer their overseas study destinations to reflect the political changes.

Washington viewed China as a strategic rival and was concerned about Chinese research students in STEM majors taking core technology back and increasing China’s competitiveness, he said.

Even after US President Donald Trump and America’s ambassador to China Terry Branstad said US campuses welcomed Chinese students, and that the US had made no changes to its student visa policies, words were not enough and the outlook was grim, Zhou said.

“Some students are panicking when they see visa denial or an excessively long visa check,” he said, adding that those students might opt for a more welcoming country, especially when Britain and Canada were doing more to attract foreign students.

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