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‘Chinese Crisis’ at Western Universities

Why the U.S. is losing students from China


Experts have noticed declining Chinese cooperation with Western partners in higher education. Students from the world’s leading exporter of students now have a preference for their national universities. But many Western universities depend on the inflow of Chinese students, and a decrease in numbers may slow their development. In a recent paper, Philip G. Altbach offered his reflections on U.S. universities’ ‘Chinese crisis.’

Dependence on Resources

China is the world’s biggest exporter of students, and universities in many countries have come to rely on Chinese students for enrolment. This is a financial issue that concerns universities’ revenue and staffing. A significant number of postdoctoral researchers, who are needed to staff research laboratories and who sometimes teach, also come from China. If these seats stay empty, there will be an impact on universities’ development and their global reputation.

More than 600,000 Chinese students studied abroad in 2017. One-third of the 1.1 million international students in the U.S. come from China. Similar proportions are found in other major receiving countries, such as Australia (38%) and the UK (41% of non-EU students).

This has created an ‘unsustainable situation of overdependence’ in higher education in many Western countries, Philip G. Altbach emphasized. The situation is creating risks, especially since it is quite likely that the numbers of Chinese students going abroad to several key receiving countries will slow in growth or even decline.

Breaking Ties

The decline in this inflow is happening for two reasons.

 The first reason is the transformation of higher education taking place within China. More and more top-tier universities are opening in the country, and students are focusing on local institutions. Additionally, China has become a major importer of foreign students and the region’s leader in this area. Today, over 440,000 international students study in China, most of whom come from other Asian countries.

 The second reason is political. China is often criticized by Western countries and reacts accordingly. A trade war began between China and the U.S. when China reacted to American sanctions by increasing tariffs on American goods. These were the goods produced in those states that supported Donald Trump in the election. ‘Beijing will almost certainly react against anti-Chinese rhetoric and actions evident in many Western countries,’ Altbach added.

Academic cooperation between Chinese and international universities has in fact already slowed down. For example, in the U.S., university partnership programmes are shutting down, and while the total number of Chinese students at American universities has grown slightly, the number of newly enrolled doctoral students has already started to decline. This is ‘a likely forerunner of future trends,’ Altbach believes. There is also a shift of Chinese students away from schools in the middle of the country, which are places perceived as ‘pro-Trump’ and perhaps less friendly to outsiders.

According to Altbach, China will limit options for international cooperation with the world’s leading universities.Chinese authorities may try to restrict outward student mobility to some extent – through specific policies, ‘guidance’ from the government and media, and financial pressure, such as cutting back on the China Scholarship Council and the other rather limited scholarship programmes offered.

It is impossible to predict specific numbers, Altbach believes, but the number of Chinese students going to countries that are popular among international students is likely to fall as a result.


Both sides, Western countries and China, have added to the decrease in international academic cooperation.

The US, for example, has tightened rules for Chinese visa holders in some STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields while the FBI has highlighted academic vulnerabilities to Chinese espionage. President Trump’s administration has restored a previously dismissed commission that tracks the activities of foreigners (mostly from China) who are involved in secret research. Donald Trump has even called Chinese students and academics in the US ‘spies.’

Reports in other countries, such as Australia and the UK, have highlighted the risks of research cooperation with China.

Confucius Institutes, which have been established at more than 100 American universities and number more than 500 worldwide, have come under heavy criticism recently. Decisions have been made to limit their presence. They are seen in the U.S. as potentially hazardous foreign organizations. ‘Several institutes have been closed recently, and more are under review’, Altbach writes.

At the same time, however, there are significant new restrictions on academic freedom and a ‘shrinking’ of intellectual space in China. ‘Ideology has reclaimed a more central place in academic life, and access to information, never fully available, is now better monitored and controlled with new technologies,’ he explained.

China’s efforts to impose censorship on Western academic journals in China has received widespread publicity and condemnation in the West. Pressure on the prestigious China Quarterly and its publisher, Cambridge University Press, to censor 300 online articles resulted in their removal – only to be restored after widespread criticism among Western academics.

Due to Chinese regulations, Springer Nature, an international publisher, partly censors the contents of publications and limits access to them in China. These controversies have contributed to a negative image of China.

Meanwhile, political reasons are not the only thing leading to a weakening of international academic ties between China and Western countries. Trends in academia development also play a role.

Pessimistic Scenario

China is boosting the creation of local top-tier universities, and prospective students are more likely to choose them rather than study abroad.

It is also quite possible that China will tighten regulations relating to foreign campuses in the country. Similar restrictions are likely to be placed on foreign research centres operating in China.

While it is impossible to predict the future of China’s higher-education relations with the rest of the world with any great precision, it is clear that there will be significant negative developments, at least for the countries that have had the closest academic relations with China and have received the large majority of Chinese students, Altbach emphasized.

The universities that depend on Chinese students in terms of balancing budgets and filling empty seats will face serious challenges, and academic ties with this important research partner will deteriorate, he concluded.


Author of the study:
Philip G. Altbach, founding director and research professor at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, U.S.
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, October 20, 2019