More Chinese studying abroad at a younger age

Parents fed up with China's intense school system want healthier, happier lives for kids

Li Bingzhi, 15, left Beijing this month for a boarding school in south-west England where her father believes she can get a more well-rounded education. Her annual school fees are about $81,000.
Li Bingzhi, 15, left Beijing this month for a boarding school in south-west England where her father believes she can get a more well-rounded education. Her annual school fees are about $81,000.PHOTO: COURTESY OF LI BINGZHI

Fifteen-year-old Li Bingzhi left Beijing for a boarding school in south-west England at the beginning of this month.

At her new school, she is able to go to bed on time and enjoy physical education (PE) classes regularly. This would have been impossible if she had gone to a Chinese high school, said her father, Mr Li Yong.

While it was hard to send her halfway across the globe at this relatively young age, Mr Li is glad that she is now enjoying her time at school every day.

"We've got only this one precious daughter," said the 44-year-old senior engineer at a state-owned enterprise. "Before, she could never go to bed before midnight due to all the homework she had, and the PE classes were always cancelled. Such a lifestyle is very unhealthy for a growing child," he told The Straits Times.

Mr Li had always planned to send Bingzhi abroad for her undergraduate studies. But as he got increasingly fed up with the "abnormal" Chinese education system, he decided to bring the move forward.

He is not alone in doing so. Frustrated with the intense competition at school and disappointed with the overemphasis on standardised examination scores, many Chinese parents are sending their children abroad at an ever-younger age.

  • Boom time for international schools

  • High school student Luna Guan, 15, had wanted to go to a boarding school in Britain this autumn.

    But while she had passed the entrance exam in June, she did not manage to get the paperwork to go abroad sorted out in time.

    However, her father was not about to give up on giving her a foreign education, albeit within China. He found Malvern College Qingdao, in eastern Shandong province, a new kind of international school catering to Chinese students.

    According to the institute's website, the four-year-old school is "thought to be the first purpose-built international secondary school for Chinese nationals that is backed by a leading independent UK school and licensed by the Chinese authorities".

    In China, local students are not allowed to study at foreign-owned international schools, which are strictly for expatriate children.

    This has given rise to new types of international schools such Sino-foreign cooperative schools and Chinese-owned, private bilingual schools. Chinese students can also study at international classes within some local public schools.

    There are also private schools like Malvern College Qingdao that provide education at senior high school level and are not restricted by any government requirements, said the London-based International School Consultancy (ISC).

    There is "an insatiable demand" for English-medium education in China, said ISC. And many families are now able to afford the high fees of private schools offering such an education.

    As of this year, the ISC counted 550 international schools in China, out of which 440 are accessible to the locals. More than 150,000 Chinese students, like Luna, are studying in these schools. The consultancy predicts that the number of bilingual private schools will continue to grow at a rapid pace.

    Luna told The Straits Times that she enjoyed having all her lessons conducted in English.

    Her mother Zhang Dan, 44, said that Luna's tuition, room and board cost about 180,000 yuan (S$37,000) a year. These would have cost a mere 2,000 yuan at the public high school.

    "Our friends and relatives are surprised that we sent her to an international school, as we are just an average-income family," said Ms Zhang, an administrative assistant.

    "But since she really wants to get out of the Chinese education system, I don't really have a choice," she added.

    Chong Koh Ping

A Chinese Academy of Social Sciences report showed that Chinese children studying at the high school level made up 27 per cent of all Chinese students overseas last year, up from 17 per cent in 2012.

A recent survey of some 2,000 Chinese parents showed that more than half of them have plans to send their children abroad to study.

Dr Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a non-governmental group, said middle-class parents in China are getting more demanding of the quality of education that their children receive.

"The current education system, with its emphasis on acquiring technical knowledge and a single measure of outcome based on exam scores, has failed to satisfy the parents," said Dr Xiong. They prefer a system that can reflect their children's interests, he said.

The relatively poor quality of university education is another factor spurring parents to send their children overseas.

Some just take it a step further, doing so at the high school level so that their children can adjust to the new environment earlier, he noted.

He observed that the increasing affluence of Chinese parents has allowed them to have more control over their children's education.

Bearing this out is Mr Li, who said his daughter's annual school fees of 400,000 yuan (S$81,000) to 500,000 yuan are "well below my budget of 600,000 yuan".

Another parent, Ms Zhan Li, said the 300,000-yuan-a-year fees that she forks out for her 15-year-old son's tuition, room and board in the United States are "affordable".

"He was already studying in an international school before he left, and that had cost us 140,000 yuan a year," said Ms Zhan, 43, a finance manager.

Both Mr Li and Ms Zhan said more than half of their children's classmates have left to study abroad, mostly in the US, Canada and Britain.

Through a Chinese-run agency catering to students going overseas, Ms Zhan found homestay accommodation for her son.

"My son gets along well with this American family and I find that he has adjusted well to life over there," she said, adding that his grades are good.

But experts and the Chinese Ministry of Education have voiced their concerns about the trend of more parents sending their children below the age of 18 overseas to study.

These children are not mature enough and may have adjustment issues in many areas, said Ministry of Education spokesman Xu Mei at a press briefing earlier this year.

Agreeing, Renmin University education expert Cheng Fangping said that it is better for students to go abroad after they have received their basic education in China.

"Or else it's as good as giving up our Chinese culture, and they may end up feeling dejected in the future, without a sense of where their roots are," said Professor Cheng.

Going abroad for graduate school would mean that the students could be equipped with both the Eastern and Western ways of thinking. "This will make them far more creative, and have more options for better prospects going forward," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2016, with the headline 'More Chinese studying abroad at a younger age'. Subscribe