China is by far the leading supplier of students to US institutions of higher education. Out of roughly 725,000 international students in the US, almost 22% are from China. The next largest supplier country is India with 14%. And that gap is widening. In 2010/11, for instance, there were 30,000 more Chinese students in the US compared to the previous year; while every other country, except Saudi Arabia but including India, had very little year on year increase. Given that the total number of international students in the US has risen by 24% in 5 years, the conclusion is irresistible: if US colleges or universities want to look for international students, concentrate on China.
But before we embrace that belief, consider the example of US and Western European automobile manufacturing firms. For them, China represented a similar gold mine. Beginning in the 1990s, these firms set up Joint Ventures or wholly owned enterprises in China to exploit the low cost structure. Most of the goods produced were exported, bringing much needed currency back to China. Then these same manufacturers began to recognize the size and potential of the Chinese market and began tooling operations for domestic production. In both of these trends, the government of China was an active participant. They welcomed the development of a local manufacturing presence, and they exacted a price for it: either requiring a joint venture operating structure, or the royalty free use of intellectual property, or both. This hastened the process of technology transfer: Chinese workers became very familiar with Western manufacturing techniques and Chinese engineers and scientists got first-hand experience in the latest technologies and best practices. This technology “spillover” allowed Chinese companies, licensed by the government, to develop their own technical capability, which enabled them to compete with the foreign owned firms. Now, for instance, 9 of the top 20 automobile manufacturers expected to increase market share by 2016, come from China.
The Chinese government didn’t just stumble into this development cycle. Unlike those of us in the West, whose horizon of the future rarely goes beyond 5 years, the Chinese believe in the long view, the 100 year strategic plan. And the Chinese government is an active player in formulating and implementing this plan: funding research, facilitating technology transfer, building the manufacturing and service economy that will one day, no doubt soon, make China into the largest economy in the world.
So how does this apply to international students in China? The Chinese government knows that
China’s traditional pedagogical reliance on memorization and rote learning is incompatible with technological development. That requires creative thinking, the ability to work on teams, the training that combines ideas from various scientific and business disciplines. And where to find such educational experiences? Most developed countries in general, and the US in particular. The US is an English speaking country in a world where English is the lingua franca. The US still holds its place as having the best collection of colleges and universities in the world and the US attracts about 20% of all international students. But it’s not just class room training that attracts them. It is the opportunity for work – as interns, as temporary or permanent employees. The work reinforces the learning and it provides the invaluable experience of returning home – and most of them return home – having worked in the US.
Since the Chinese government is such an active player in economic development, since it sees the enormous importance of education as it is found in the US, and since only the government grants permission for students to study abroad, US institutions of higher learning benefit. But the question is for how long? Given that the Chinese government is seeking self-sufficiency, at what point is a degree from a US college or university less important than one from China? At what point does the Chinese government turn off the spigot?
I am not suggesting that US colleges and universities ignore the market for students in China. China is a huge market and it needs to educate its people at the finest universities its students can find. But I am saying that US colleges and universities should begin looking to other countries to recruit students. After all, it takes years to build an effective and reliable pipeline. There are differences in the educational needs of other countries that must be learned. There are cultural differences that demand discrete ways of marketing to other countries. It takes time to build partnerships with key in-country organizations so that the students can be directed to the appropriate college or university.
US institutions of higher learning will be an attraction for the international student for years. And these students will become an increasingly importance source of enrollments, both to fill vacant seats, and as full payers of tuition. These institutions need to be plan-full about their approach. They need to have a Chinese-like long view. And this view will include some near term steps that are relatively easy to implement, and which will form the building blocks for future capabilities and programs that will continue to attract international students for years.