The Chinese Study Abroad Market

The People’s Republic of China is the world’s most populated country. With a population of 1,4 billion and around 40 million students in higher education, China is the largest study abroad market in the world. It has been for nearly 2 decades already. According to the ICEF monitor, a record number of Chinese students were studying for a degree abroad in 2021: a staggering 1,061,511. On top of that another 200,000 students are taking part in exchange programs. Get the latest information about the Chinese study abroad market in this market report on China.

Growth in China is slowing down – but China remains no 1 study abroad market in the World
According to the ICEF monitor ‘new data from the Chinese Ministry of Education reveals that both the total number of outbound students as well as the number of returnees from study abroad reached record levels. However, growth has slowed over the last two years and is notably below the average annual growth of recent decades. Figures show a 3% increase over 2019 levels but marks the second consecutive year – after 8% growth in 2017 – of growth levels below the 19.1% average annual growth over the past four decades.

Most experts seem to agree though that spending on education will increase over the next decades. “Between 2015 and 2030, China is expected to spend 12.5% of overall consumption growth on education for those under 30 – a higher share than in any other country.”

Quick facts

  • Population: 1.4 billion (2021)

  • Education: 9 years compulsory

  • Academic year: September – July

Secondary education

  • Starting age: 12

  • Duration: 6 years (3 years junior school, 3 year middle school)

  • Enrollment numbers: 83.4 million (2019 data) – Enrollment rate: 95%

Higher education

  • Duration: 6-7 years (bachelor 4, Master 2-3)

  • Enrollment numbers: 44.1 million (2019)

  • Tertiary enrollment rate: 51%

  • Universities/Higher Education Institutions: 2,845

Chinese Education system

Secondary education

Secondary education has two routes: academic secondary education and specialized/vocational/technical secondary education. Academic secondary education consists of junior (three years) and senior middle schools (three years). Junior middle school graduates wishing to continue their education take a locally administered entrance exam, on the basis of which they will have the option of i) continuing in an academic senior middle school; or ii) entering a vocational middle school (or leave school at this point) to receive two to four years of training.

Admission to Higher Education

Senior middle school graduates wishing to go to universities must take National Higher Education Entrance Exam (Gao Kao). According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, in June 2015, 9.42 million students took the exam.

The main goal of most senior middle schools or high schools is to prepare their students for higher education. In fact, the quality of a high school is often measured by the number of students they send off to college. This has a lot to do with the limited number of spots at China’s universities and the high number of applicants.

Higher Education

Higher education in China centers on a system of 2,000 universities and colleges. The system includes Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees, as well as non-degree programs, and is also open to foreign students.

The Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China (MOE) is the government authority for all matters pertaining to education and language. The MOE notes that higher education in China has played a significant part in economic growth, scientific progress and social development in the country “by bringing up large scale of advanced talents and experts for the construction of socialist modernization.

University level studies:

First Cycle: Bachelor/undergraduate programs
A bachelor’s degree (学士学位 xueshi xuewei) is awarded at the conclusion of a 4-year undergraduate program (benke). The length of programmes in Medicine, traditional Chinese Medicine, Architecture and some Engineering and Music programmes is 5 years.

Second cycle: Master’s programs
A master’s degree (硕士学位 shuoshi xuewei) takes 2 to 3 years to complete, half of which is devoted to coursework (on which students are examined) and the other half to writing the final paper. Admission is granted based on a bachelor’s degree and an entrance examination. Candidates may not be older than 35 years of age. Students who only successfully pass the coursework section receive a Certificate of Graduation (biye zhengshu), but no certificate of degree conferment. Master’s degrees can be awarded by either higher education institutions or research institutes.

Third Cycle: PhD programs
Admission to a Doctorate (博士 boshi) program requires a master’s degree, an entrance examination and recommendations from at least 2 professors or (senior) lecturers in the field. Candidates should not be older than 40 years of age when commencing the program. Candidates without a master’s degree may still gain admission via an entrance examination. Doctorate programs take 3 to 5 years to complete, including 1 year containing only coursework, as well as a doctoral thesis. There is an entrance examination comprising political theory (Marxism), the relevant subject area and 2 foreign languages.

Source: OECD

Visual depicting the Chinese Educational System

Types of Higher Education Institutions

Higher Education in China can be divided into two categories—State-owned or government-owned HEIs, including Regular HEIs, Independent Institutions, Higher Vocational Colleges, Adult HEIs, and non-government or private universities.

According to the latest data of People’s Republic of China Ministry of Education, total number of Chinese National Higher Institutions is 2845, including 2,553 National General Colleges and Universities and 292 Adult Higher Institutions. Government-owned HEIs are likely to receive more policy and finance support from official level.

Latest Chinese Higher Education study abroad stats

China is the world’s largest sending nation in terms of student number. At this point a total number 1,061,511 Chinese students are studying abroad (for or as part of a degree in higher education) according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The most popular study abroad destinations are:

Chinese students studying abroad
UNESCO study abroad data

IB schools in China

Best performing Chinese Universities

Looking to partner with Universities from China? These are the best performing universities.

Peking University

THE Rank: 16

Tsinghua University

THE Rank: 16

Fudan University 

THE Rank: 60

Online behaviour of Chinese students

China is home to the largest digital community in the world, with nearly 830 million internet users in 2019. Yet, the country’s internet penetration rate was relatively low at 63 percent, compared with South Korea and Japan, which ranged over the 90 percent mark. The main setback is the slow progress of internet infrastructures in the remote regions. While the internet adoption rate in first-tier cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, was close to 85%. (source:


Most popular social media websites

Wechat, Weibo and Baidu are the leading social media platforms in China. According to, Linkedin is the leading ‘western’ social media platform.

Sina Wibo
Baidu Tieba
Tencent Weibo

Scholarships for Chinese students

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