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China's study abroad generation

OVERSEAS education is no longer an impossible dream for ordinary Chinese families as the country's economic development and the rise of budget-friendly destinations are putting foreign degrees within reach of many.

As a result the number of Chinese studying abroad has steadily increased each year over the past decade, except during the SARS outbreak when visa policies were tightened.

The figures show a strong growth trend with a total of 1.9 million Chinese having studied abroad since 1978, most of them funding their own studies.

Nearly 40,000 Chinese headed overseas to study in 2000 and the number doubled in 2001, according to the Ministry of Education.

The number of people who studied abroad each year has remained above 100,000 since 2002 and climbed swiftly to 285,000 last year, setting a new record high.

The main driving force behind the education exodus is partly the dream of becoming more competitive in the home market, but mainly resulting from a rise in local income and wealth.

For a long time, overseas education was reserved only for privileged children born into wealthy families. Their parents were either executives in companies or running private firms in China's biggest cities.

But more and more kids from working-class communities or second-tier cities also left for foreign countries to study over the past 10 years, because of rising incomes among ordinary families and the yuan's rise against the US dollar, which has helped to decrease the cost of overseas studies.

To illustrate this, urban residents' per capita disposable income reached 19,109 yuan (US$2,990) last year, compared with 5,854 yuan in 1999. Nowadays the yuan stands at about 6.4 yuan against the greenback, compared with 8.27 in 2005 when the country started pushing ahead with its currency reform.

On average a student spends US$20,000 for tuition and US$10,000 on food and accommodation in the US every year. If a student went to the US to study before 2005, he or she needed to pay roughly 250,000 yuan a year. If they go there to study now, they only need to pay about 200,000 yuan a year.

Moreover, domestic students today have wider and cheaper study choices as some non-English speaking and budget-friendly countries like France, Germany and Italy are launching international courses to attract overseas students and to cash in on the booming overseas education market in China.

Eric Wu, a Shanghainese student born into an ordinary family, realized his dream of studying in the US thanks to rising house prices in China.

His parents sold their suburban apartment for 1 million yuan in 2008 when he graduated from a local university and moved in with his grandparents to finance their son's postgraduate studies.

Wu found a software engineer job in the US after graduation last year. His annual income of US$60,000 per year is higher than many of his peers in China.

He estimates that by saving US$50,000 every year he can recover his parents' education investment in two years.

Wu plans to return to the city after saving enough money to buy an apartment in Shanghai or at least the down payment.

"If I had worked in Shanghai directly after graduation, I wouldn't have been able to afford an apartment at all," he said.

Wu believed that his overseas working experience would give him an edge in domestic job market. But if he couldn't find a good opportunity in Shanghai, staying in America would be a good choice with the better air quality and longer annual holidays.

His parents are also pleased with the investment in theirson's education.

With the country's transition from elite higher to mass higher education over the past decade, university students without practical experience are finding themselves less competitive in the job market.

Domestic university graduates have not received big increases in their salaries over the past decade. In sharp contrast, housing prices and commodity prices have risen significantly.

Against this background, many high school students give up on writing the national college entrance examination. Many of them instead directly head overseas to study, seek immigration opportunities or try to win a better job after returning to the country.

About 7.5 million high school graduates gave up on sitting for the national college entrance exam in 2009, according to education authorities. Though the Ministry of Education didn't release the figures last year, experts estimated that about 1 million students gave up going to Chinese universities in favor of overseas opportunities.

Some public high schools in Shanghai are introducing international courses, such as UK's A-Level, Australia's WACE and the internationally recognized IB diploma program, into their curriculum to satisfy the increasing needs of students eyeing overseas studies.

Other means of adding overseas experience to their resumes include taking part in various exchange programs or summer camp or summer schools abroad.

"When everyone has overseas education experience, you must also equip yourself with it," said Vicky Wang, who took part in an exchange program in Singapore.

However, whether overseas education can recoup the high costs is a problem that more and more families are faced with.

After the economic crisis, it has become more difficult for foreigners to find jobs in overseas countries. Singapore tightened up on mid-level foreign workers earlier this month as Singaporeans have become increasingly anxious over rising competition for jobs.

The number of overseas returnees is increasing significantly in the meanwhile. Nearly 135,000 Chinese returned to their homeland last year, a 24 percent increase over the previous year.

Meanwhile, many domestic firms hesitate to hire overseas returnees who have left the Chinese society for a long time and have little working experience but ask high salaries. Some firms favor domestic college graduates over overseas returnees to avoid paying higher salaries.

Today's overseas returnees are not all elites as their predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s, some even said to be mediocre students born into rich families.

According to a survey launched by the Education International Cooperation Group, 50 percent of returnees earn a salary of less than 5,000 yuan.

"If the overseas education cannot grant you a high starting salary, it will surely benefit a person in the long term," said Shanghainese Wu, a fervent backer of overseas education.


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