More Foreign Students Opting for China's Smaller Cities


Smaller cities in China use scholarships and the promise of better job opportunities to attract international students. Photo: IC

While the total number of international students in China has increased over the past two years, fewer are choosing to study to Beijing than before, according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Education.

Of the 377,954 overseas students that studied in the Chinese mainland last year, 20,555 were enrolled in the capital, a decline of 3,364 from 2012. Meanwhile, enrolment figures in Jiangsu Province increased by 5,784, Liaoning Province by 4,316 and Shandong Province by 4,126. 

"I see more foreign students choosing schools in smaller cities in the future as China continues to open up," said Xiong Bingqi, dean of 21st Century Education Research Institute, a non-profit think tank established in 2002 that monitors educational policy around the country.

The statistical report on international students in China is published biannually.

Denise Amoruso, a 22-year-old student from Italy majoring in Chinese at Kunming Normal University, said she chose the second-tier city to avoid the expat bubbles of Beijing and Shanghai.  

"I chose Kunming [in Yunnan Province] because it has fewer foreigners compared to Beijing and Shanghai, so I would have to spend more time with locals and practice Chinese," she said. "I think people in Kunming are more friendly and eager to communicate with me, which gives me [a better] opportunity to understand local culture and traditions."

Amoruso, who won a scholarship from the Confucius Institute that enabled her to study anywhere in China, said she initially considered the Beijing Language and Culture University, but ultimately decided against it. 

Prior to beginning her studies at the university in September last year, Amoruso spent two weeks in 2013 traveling through Beijing and Shanghai.

"Most Chinese people in big cities are already used to seeing foreigners and have been to other countries themselves, so they're not curious to communicate with me compared to people in smaller cities," she said. "Besides, the air is less polluted in Kunming, and the weather is neither too cold nor hot here. It's more comfortable. " 



International students say that there are certain inconveniences to living and studying in smaller cities. Photos: IC, CFP

Scholarships and job opportunities

Xiong said that increasingly, local governments in second-tier cities were working with universities to invest in policies and scholarship programs to attract overseas students, in the process raising the international profile of the universities.  

Since 2010, the provincial government of Jiangsu has set aside 15 million yuan ($2.42 million) each year for a scholarship fund targeting international students. Plans have also been announced to introduce 1,500 courses to be taught in English in the province's universities, according to a China Youth Daily report last August.

Giulia Cipollone, from Italy, chose to study international business at Yunnan University in Kunming after winning the 11th Chinese Bridge Proficiency Competition, which came with a scholarship covering her tuition costs and living expenses in China. 

Cipollone, 20, said that besides being lured by Kunming's temperate weather and ethnic diversity, she chose to base herself in a second-tier city was because she thinks it could be beneficial to her future career.

"Second-tier cities like Kunming are developing rapidly," said Cipollone, who hopes to work in a role relating to the Chinese economy after graduation. "Here, I could have a better understanding of Chinese economy, about how the small cities and counties are changing." 

Xiong said that considerations like Cipollone were a major reason for international students' increased interest in studying outside Beijing and Shanghai.  

"A growing number of international enterprises are being established in second-tier cities," said Xiong. "So the potential job market for foreigners in these cities is a factor."  

According to a Western China Metropolis Daily report in May 2014, while the majority of Fortune Global 500 companies in the Chinese mainland are headquartered in Beijing and Shanghai, 269 also have offices in Sichuan Province. 

In addition, the Xinhua News Agency reported in December 2013 that 80 Fortune 500 companies have offices in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, and local news portal noted in December 2011 that 26 such companies had set up branches in Kunming.  

Pros and cons

Nevertheless, Amoruso admitted that there were certain shortcomings to studying and living in a smaller city like Kunming.  

"Many teachers can't speak English, which is usually a good thing because it forces me to speak Chinese, but when they teach us grammar, I can't understand a thing at all," said Amoruso. 

She said after speaking to friends who are studying in Beijing, she had the sense that they were learning more than her in their university courses.  

Amoruso also said that certain parts of daily life were difficult, such as finding a doctor that could speak English. 

Cipollone said not only was she the sole foreigner in her major, but some of her classes were taught in the local Kunming dialect, which made them difficult for her to follow.

She was also given little support in working her way through complicated textbooks, all of which are entirely in Chinese.

"I have to translate the textbook into English myself. It takes me three times the amount of energy to understand things as the Chinese students," said Cipollone. "I am so exhausted."

Sam Buckner, 26, who spent a year learning Chinese at Huangshan University in Anhui Province from 2009 to 2010, said it was an ideal environment for studying, but job opportunities were scarce after he completed his course.   

"It was a great place to study, because there was not many foreigners and entertainment activities going," said Buckner. "But I don't see many job opportunities there for foreigners."

Buckner now works at a real estate agency in Beijing.   

"No matter how good my Chinese has become, I still need to work half in English and half in Chinese, and I need expatriate friends," said Buckner. "I don't think second-tier cities could offer me those things."

Xiong said that each situation was specific, and that in Buckner's case, the lack of employment opportunities was due to the city in which he studied, and the industry in which he was seeking work.

"Huangshan is a fourth-tier city with a population of only around 1 million residents," said Xiong, noting that the main industry there is tourism. "It's not a very international city, so it doesn't have many job opportunities for foreigners." 

Slowing trend

Xiong said that there was no simple answer about whether it was better or worse to study in a smaller city in China compared to a larger one. 

Rather, it is up to each student to decide where they wished to study, which is dependent on individual circumstances including the field of study, the kind of educational environment a student was looking for, and what a student wanted to do after graduation. 

Of greater concern, said Xiong, was the declining rate of international student enrolments in China across the board.   

From 2012 to 2013, the number of international enrolments increased by 8.6 percent, according to the China Youth Daily in March. From 2013 to 2014, the rate of growth was only 5.8 percent. 

In response, the Ministry of Education is investing more money into scholarships for international students, the People's Daily reported last month. The China Scholarship Council now offers a full scholarship covering tuition fees and living expenses amounting to up to 100,000 yuan per year, and a number of smaller scholarships are also being offered through bodies like the Confucius Institute.  

But Xiong said that offering scholarships alone would not be enough, and that what was needed was improvements to university infrastructure that would make studying in China a more attractive prospect. 

"Universities in both big and small cities need to develop a diverse range of courses that are taught in English for foreign students," said Xiong. "They should also build more partnerships with overseas universities, so grade credits can be exchanged, which will make it easier for international students to study in China."

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