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Duke Kunshan University

Kunshan, Jiangsu, China

How China Became a Top Destination for International Students

18 Dec 2017

From the perspective of Western media, the end of the 20th century marked the beginning of the gradual decline of American economic and technological dominance. The world would usher in the so-called “Pacific century.” Although many well-informed European and American observers discounted such projections, pointing out that U.S. leadership in areas such as research and development, innovation and higher education was almost insurmountable; today, the rise of Asia seems ever more likely.

This is particularly true in the case of China. With more than U.S. $3 trillion in forex reserves, China has become the world’s second largest spender on research, surpassing both Europe and Japan. Furthermore, China is on its way to becoming an educational powerhouse that offers increasingly attractive opportunities for prospective undergraduate and graduate students pursuing a university education.

In 2018, 8 million students will receive undergraduate degrees from Chinese universities. This represents 10 times the size of the graduation volume in 1997. With 2,880 universities and more than 37 million students enrolled, China is on a path to becoming a higher educational juggernaut whose universities offer an attractive alternative to some of the highly traditional, highly branded and highly ranked universities in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere.

China is also well on its way to reaching its goal of enrolling 500,000 international students, with 442,733 international students matriculating across various Chinese universities (including a growing number of private universities) in the past year. With more Chinese Ph.D.s deciding to return to China after completing their studies and research post-docs in the United States and Europe, a new stock of bilingual, high-caliber faculty are beginning to fill the ranks of high-end talent inside Chinese think tanks, research institutes and universities. The impact of this reverse brain drain should not be underestimated, as many top Chinese universities have become pro-active headhunters, visiting major campuses in the U.S. and Europe as a way to attract Chinese people to return home to join the restoration of Chinese knowledge and leadership on a global scale.

Along with the growing volume of domestic and international students attending Chinese universities, there has also been a pronounced increase in government spending on higher education. In 2016, China’s Ministry of Education and its local provincial counterparts had a budget for universities that reached more than RMB 1 trillion, an increase of 6.22 percent from 2015. The new campaign to promote academic quality, called “the New Double World Plan,” builds on both the highly aggressive 985 program and the 211 higher education initiative that were designed to push Chinese universities into ranks of world class universities. 

This New Double plan aims to focus resources and attention on 137 universities, 42 of which intend to become world-class institutions and 95 of which will have world-class disciplines. As things now stand after the 19th Party Congress, there is little doubt that the Chinese economy has the financial capability to support such broad-based initiatives; the only question will be the pace of implementation and the extent to which politics are left on the sidelines as efforts are launched to improve academic quality, reform curriculum and internationalize campuses. The willingness of the PRC government to open up the educational sector and allow 10 joint venture universities from across the globe to establish full-fledged degree granting campuses in China is yet another sign of China’s commitment to promote world-class academic institutions within its borders.

The combined efforts to advance, reform and internationalize the Chinese higher education system suggest that it may be time for international students from the U.S., Canada, Europe and other parts of the globe to seriously consider attending Chinese universities. With rising tuitions across U.S. public and private institutions, the value proposition offered by PRC-based institutions cannot be ignored. Of course, going to college in China is not for everyone, but for those students seeking to enter the next educational frontier and study in an environment that increasingly seems less resource constrained, the Chinese option must be considered. This is especially true regarding the opportunities at joint venture institutions like Duke Kunshan University (DKU), which offers a fully accredited American degree from Duke University and a local DKU degree officially approved by China’s Ministry of Education.

The high-touch learning environment at Duke Kunshan is built around a state-of-the-art liberal arts curriculum that offers students a chance to take advantage of the historically rich, economically dynamic location in China and a Western-style learning environment. With a truly multinational student body and world-class, high caliber global faculty, institutions like Duke Kunshan offer graduates a chance to find local internships and launch their careers in one of the most dynamic economies in the world.

Most importantly, the willingness of Chinese authorities to open up the education sector to joint venture projects with foreign partners from the U.S., U.K., Russia, Israel, Holland as well as Hong Kong manifests the fact that PRC leaders are committed to changing the trajectory of the Chinese higher education system. In this way, universities can take advantage of the advanced pedagogies and educational technologies that have become essential parts of the 21stt century learning experience.

The growth of liberal arts programs and research capabilities beyond these joint venture institutions further underscores the fact that one can receive an excellent education in China and at the same time be positioned at the cutting edge of innovation across the new shared, highly connected internet-driven environment that defines the PRC economy today. Investing $9 billion in artificial intelligence and making major contributions in other fields such as electric vehicle transportation infrastructure, China promises to be at the cutting edge of the technological revolutions that will shape the workplace and lifestyles of the coming decades.

As to be expected, not every Chinese academic institution is experiencing the type of dramatic changes going on in places such as Peking University and Tsinghua University. However, study options and internationally trained faculty can be found among the top 10 to 15 universities in China (as ranked by the Academic Ranking of World Universities). If students and their parents simply pay attention to traditional academic rankings, they may never stumble upon any of these PRC universities because they don’t yet appear in the top 25 among the World University Rankings for 2017. This is why rankings should never be the sole factor used to make a college decision.

For the adventurous student who is future-oriented and willing to think outside the box, a university education in China may provide a chance to break the mold and carve out a very international career path that has a strong connection with China at its core. The chance to acquire Chinese language skills makes this opportunity even more attractive. There is no doubt that committing to this type of education will lead to excellent outcomes for participating students, as the rise of the Chinese economy and technological advances are guaranteed to be center stage on the roadmap that will define the 21st century and beyond. 

By Denis Simon, Executive Vice Chancellor, Duke Kunshan University



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