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Education in China: The Good, The Bad & The Big Opportunities

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Education in China: The Good, The Bad & The Big Opportunities

Universities around the world have all seen their share of Chinese students studying abroad. For Universities hoping to attract more students to their programs, it is important to understand more about education in China and what drives Chinese students to study abroad.



Table of Contents



A Quick Overview of the Chinese Education System Read Now
The Education System in China: Underneath the Tip of The Iceberg Read Now
The Education System in China – How to Improve? Read Now
Higher Education in China: Overseas Education Read Now
Higher Education in China – Why do Chinese Students Go Overseas? Read Now
Higher Education in China – How to Attract Chinese students? Read Now


A Quick Overview of the Chinese Education System



Education in China is characterized as the “true religion of the people” and has always played an important part in Chinese tradition with learning always being highly valued and respected.  The importance of education can be seen in Emperor Zhenzong’s (968–1022 AD) poem



Urge to Study (Quan Xue Shi):


To be wealthy you need not purchase fertile fields, Thousands of tons of corn are to be found in the books.

To build a house you need not set up high beams,

Golden mansions are to be found in the books.

To find a wife you need not worry about not having good matchmakers,

Maidens as beautiful as jade are to be found in the books.

To travel you need not worry about not having servants and attendants,

Large entourages of horses and carriages are to be found in the books.

When a man wishes to fulfill the ambition of his life,

He only needs to diligently study the six classics by the window.



The ideal that “all pursuits are of low value; only learning is high” still holds true for many. Family expenditures on education amounted to the second-highest expenditure of the family budget in China, surpassing both housing and clothing, with only food beating it marginally. Providing a child with a good education is a top and worthy priority by the majority of Chinese parents.



The Ministry of Education which is headquartered in Beijing is the state department responsible for the education system in China. In their mission to “modernize China through education”, they certify teachers, standardize textbooks and curriculum, and enforce national education standards.





The education system in China consists of a 9-year compulsory education which is broken down to 6 years of primary education, starting at age 6, and 3 years of junior middle education.



After junior middle education, students have the option to decide whether or not they would like to continue for 3 more years of senior middle school to complete their secondary education.



The system has a great reputation, yet it is very challenging and competitive. According to OCED’s report, Chinese students came out on top in OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. PISA is a test that rates the reading, math, and science skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries. As a result, many Western governments are keen to replicate the disciplines of the Chinese education system. Nevertheless, is this system really living up to its reputation?



PISA Worldwide Ranking

PISA Worldwide Ranking Chart (Source: factsmaps.com)



The Education System in China: Underneath the Tip of The Iceberg



People rarely dig deeper into the ‘success’ of the Chinese student and the education system in China. While great test scores are well, great … that can’t be replicated for the life of the Chinese student and their approach to life after studying.



We’ve identified three major problems within the education system in China.



#1 The Education System in China – Long Hours, Heavy Content



Chinese students spend a lot more time in school than their fellows in Western countries. School days are longer in duration and are only increasing, while their holidays are shorter.



Chinese students have roughly four weeks off in the winter, and seven weeks off in the summer, plus weekends and traditional holidays.



School regularly starts at 7:30 am and goes on until 4 pm, with an hour and a half to 2 hours break for lunch and naptime. On Saturdays, many schools hold required morning classes in science and math. However, that’s not it! Many students also attend 補習班 (buxiban), or cram school.  While schools don’t require it, it is a must if they don’t want to fall behind their fellow schoolmates.



English First is one of the largest tutoring companies in China. Training centers like this have begun to appear all throughout China.



With heavy workloads, students are highly recommended to attend tutoring sessions for the following main courses: Math, Literature, English, Chemistry, and Physics. The normal school day simply doesn’t have enough time for teachers to cover all the materials in the books written and published by the Ministry of Education of China. Aside from math and science, students take Chinese, English, history, literature, music, art, and physical education.



Most students wake up around 6 am and go to bed between 10 – 11 pm. Their entire day is spent on learning in the classroom and finishing their homework for the next day. Often leaving no time to enjoy socializing with their friends or practicing hobbies outside of academia.



As a result of a lack of participating in non-academic subjects, they have poor communication skills and lack real-life problem-solving abilities. Most Chinese students, or Asian students in general, are good only when it comes to theory. When it comes to the actual application of a skill they have memorized, they cannot compete against Western students.





Further, with the direct result of a tough education system seeing tutors being a necessity, many can’t meet the requirements without a tutor or afford the cost of tutoring causing them to drop out or quit after the first 9 years of compulsory education in China.



#2 The Education System in China – Achievement Obsession



The Chinese are obsessed with rankings and achievements, this is largely due to the concept of “face,” which we covered in our post on Chinese Consumer Behavior.  Students are always taught to study for the sake of their country, their family, and to make their parents proud.



Even in school, students that excel in school are rewarded with prizes and encouragement, but struggling students are abandoned. This puts a lot of stress on those students and places a heavy burden on their shoulders.





Students study hard not for the purpose of gaining knowledge, but to rank highly in their tests. The ultimate philosophy of Chinese education is that you need to be good at everything. Students are bombarded with all types of subjects and have been taught them from a very young age.



Since the students have to learn so much at one time, they end up memorizing rather than learning anything. They don’t enjoy studying, nor understand the true meaning of what they are learning. After taking their exams, most completely forget what they’ve learned as they have not connected with the content.




Accordingly, Chinese students are considered to lack clear goals. Other than competing for ranking in class, they don’t usually understand the purpose for what they are learning, which results in disinterest.



#3 The education system in China – Submissive learning Style



The Chinese education system is more of an inactive style. Creativity and critical thinking are not often encouraged. This could be due to class sizes and an overabundance of content that students are forced to memorize. Teachers often don’t have time for creative answers or the energy to encourage creativity from their students.



Although Chinese students analyze literature, they rarely write their own essays. The teachers or tutors are the ones who actually do the job and students simply memorize texts. That way, they are assured to get good grades.



Companies like the one above exist primarily to assist Chinese students with their essay writing.

Companies like the one above exist primarily to assist Chinese students with their essay writing.



Hence, students tend to copy other’s ideas because they struggle to come up with their own. This passive education style results in an imperfect education system.



They are reluctant to ask questions as it demonstrates their lack of knowledge. Again, it is part of the “losing face” culture. Likewise, they are reluctant to critique others to prevent them from “losing face” as well.



The Education System in China – How to Improve?



The Chinese government has been striving to further improve its education system by adopting elements from countries around the world. Ultimately, they are seeking to create a blend of the Eastern and Western education system, this has seen a rise for international schools opening up across China in pursuit of this goal.



By blending the two cultures, students are able to get the best of Chinese and Western student attributes. Chinese students are considered to be hard-working, persistent, and deep thinkers, whilst the Western education system is known for creating independent thinkers and good communicators. Western students are very confident in their judgment, open to ask questions and challenge other thinkers.



The Canadian International School of Beijing is one example of the many international schools in China. Many of these schools have high tuition fees and serve only wealthy clientele.



Thus, international schools must build a system that can complement Chinese qualifications with Western values in order to successfully enter the Chinese market.



Opportunities for International Schools in China



Due to the problems of the Chinese education system, international schools have been very welcome in China. There are big opportunities in China and schools from Thailand, Singapore, UK, US, Australia have taken notice!



The growth of the middle-class population in China has created a high demand for English language programs. Rising wealth, skilled labor demands, and an obsession with brand names play an important role in promoting international education.



Wealthy Chinese are recognizing the importance of education and English fluency in a more international world. For that reason, Sarah Jane Ho, an entrepreneur from Hong Kong, has founded the Institute Sarita, an etiquette school based in Beijing. The institute’s mission is to help wealthy Chinese, mostly women, understand their values and be confident by combining Western culture with Confucian values.



A course at Institute Sarita

A course at Institute Sarita



For example, a 12-day Hostess course for married women will cost about $15,000 and is comprised of courses such as Introduction to French Cuisine, Dress codes, Beauty & Grooming, British Afternoon Tea, the art of European dining, table manners, wine appreciation, etc.



The majority of Chinese love Western culture and seek to incorporate its values to further enhance their prospects and that of their children in an increasingly international world.



Check out Zuo’s post on Western-style micro-schools which has created a new wave of teaching for those well-off Chinese students in China! The ISC found that parents have placed their children on waiting lists for private international kindergartens and schools the moment they are born because demand is so great!



Higher Education in China: Overseas Education



Now let’s take a look at higher education in China, and how studying abroad is the most lucrative market for companies to take advantage of the education situation in China.





According to China’s Ministry of Education, the number of Chinese who went abroad in 2018 was 662,100 – up 9% from 2017. What has been found is that studying abroad is no longer reserved for the elite few but rather most who want to go, can go.



The research conducted by China’s Ministry of Education saw the percentage of study abroad students who said their parents hold low-level positions is increasing – showing that it’s not just reserved for China’s wealthy and well-connected families.



In terms of occupation of parents, 43% of those surveyed had middle-class working parents, this is a stark contrast to 5 years ago which saw the majority of parents (48%) working as middle-level management and higher positions!



Higher Education in China – Where do Chinese Students Typically Go?



Although the USA still trumps as the top country for Chinese students, this number has dropped significantly over the past few years.



The UK has gained ground, perhaps due to the relatively low tuition costs compared to the U.S. as well as less-competitive admissions and shorter degree courses. There are more Chinese students enrolled in UK postgrad degrees than British students! This is due to British programs typically lasting only one year, offering a shorter, cheaper, and more intensive experience compared to other countries.





Top postgrad destinations in the UK – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Oxford, and Edinburgh– have all seen influxes of Chinese money as well, with m many parents investing in property for their own children or to rent out to this huge inflow of students.



Canada is gaining ground as well due to the decline steady decline in the Canadian dollar against the RMB since 2015. Lower required scores on IELTS tests for Canadian schools relative to the US and affordable costs are also a compelling factor.



The Canadian government has made significant changes to its points-based Express Entry immigration system, which enables people with skilled work experience to immigrate to Canada. These changes mean Chinese students and graduates now have a simpler pathway to obtaining PR in Canada thus it will likely attract even more Chinese in the coming years.



Chinese students account for over one-third of all foreign students studying in the United States. Almost 90% paid their own tuition costs, these students, while in the US spend approximately US$11 billion!



Trade war issues



The recent tension between America and China has posed issues for those wishing to study in China. One such issue was the U.S. State Departments plans to limit student visas for Chinese students.





The U.S State Department was planning to limit student visas awarded to Chinese citizens as part of the Trump administration, leaving many Chinese students stuck in limbo, unable to get back into the U.S. to finish their courses after spending school holidays in China. While the policy never officially passed, many Chinese students have reported higher than normal difficulties in renewing/applying for visas.



Higher Education in China – Why do they go overseas?



At one point, university places inside China were so limited that it was easy to understand why so many looked overseas. Today however, that is not the case with more than 36 million Chinese enrolled in universities inside China compared with just 6 million in 2000! What is crazy is that more students graduate year on year in China than in the US and India combined. Let’s take a look at why Chinese students go abroad below:



To Have a Better Education.



Traditionally, there was a perception that US education is simply better than a Chinese education. Chinese parents have started to ask the question: “Can world class universities – however they are defined – exist in a politically illiberal system?”



“In the realm of politics and history, the distance between what Chinese university students have to learn to graduate, and what they know to be true, grows greater every year …”



China’s Examination Hell



The Gaokao, or university admission exams, sat on the same day last year by more than 9.4 million university applicants, is an unseemly trauma for many families across the country. It is one of the most stressful times for Chinese teenagers and their parents. By studying abroad, they are ultimately avoiding the entrance exam thus escaping this intense and fierce competition.





The gaokao exam is a two-day long process which determines which university a student will go to. The stakes are high, with the results changing the life of the student as China’s best universities only select one in every 50,000 students.



The testing doesn’t stop with the students, with some universities vetting parents (making them take a math quiz) and grading the parents/grandparents according to their educational status and their physical appearance!



To Better Their Language and Soft skills





As mentioned above, courses that teach soft skills are almost non-existent for students studying in China. By studying at a Western university many feel they are exposing themselves to a more well-rounded way of learning. Further, by studying at an English-speaking university, they can improve their language, spelling and grammar skills much faster than if they stayed in China.



Better Employment Offers



A consistently key reason for studying abroad is the chance to gain better employment prospects in the future. There is a strong sense that studying overseas will enhance job prospects and career development. With Chinese gaining better language and soft skills, there is some credit behind this belief.


However, there has been a recent trend of employers not placing as much value on overseas studies in recent years. We’ll cover this in more detail below.



Global Mindset



By studying abroad, they are not only getting a better educational environment – less pressure, no entrance exams and generally a more relaxed outlook on life – but they are immersing themselves in different cultures, gaining a global mindset in doing so.



Studying abroad also offers them a chance to travel and experience even more cultures than the one they are studying in. They will also interact with people from all over the world, enhancing their social and career network.



Higher Education in China – Do Chinese Students Stay Overseas?



In 2016, the Ministry of Education found that 544,000 people went abroad to study and 432,500 returned straight after graduating.  These graduates were once applauded as “hai gui”, a Chinese word for returned students that sounds like the word for “sea turtle”. “Hai Gui” had previously been highly sought after by companies for the skills they learned abroad.



“Hai Gui” were once considered as top candidates for jobs in nearly every industry. (Picture Source: Inkstone News)



This applause has now seemingly run dry, with lucrative prospects dwindling, a new and far less flattering phrase entered to describe returning students searching for employment – “hai dai”, which sounds like “seaweed”.



While some see returning students as being increasingly equipped with the skills required to support industrial development and government strategies for growth others are seeing it as a setback. With many spending over 1 million yuan on their overseas education, they are seeing Chinese wages as simply too low.



“I consider studying overseas a long-term investment that can’t yield returns immediately, but my value and vision are different…I handle things differently and I am stronger at solving problems, which made me stand out among my peers”



Higher Education in China – How to Attract Chinese students?



One extremely important factor that every brand needs to know is that foreign marketing and communication tools are blocked in China – there are no such things as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.





According to App Annie, an app intelligence firm, Chinese consumers now spend five times more in the App Store than 2 years ago. 61% of users access social media through their mobile phones, Chinese social media is thoroughly designed for the mobile experience. This means that content must also be optimized for mobile rather than desktop to be most effective.



The mobile app is becoming the main user interface that changes the ways in which people consume and businesses sell. We’ve written a comprehensive guide to the top 10 Social Media Sites in China 2019 here!



1. WeChat: The Essential Platform For Every University





WeChat is the largest social network in China, with over 700 million users daily. Chinese people are spending an average of over 70 minutes a day within the app, which is a staggering amount when compared to other apps. WeChat is better than other social media platforms – it allows users to access much more than just a messaging service, with the introduction of mini-programs users never have to leave the app.



Universities need to be very proactive on this platform. Ways to be proactive could include making a business page and updating prospective students and their parents with the positive aspects of your university and city. Think local news, cheap living costs (properties, cheap food, etc.) and prestigious awards – anything that shows prospective students why they should travel all the way to your city!



Further, connect with influences – get KOLs who have studied at your university or spent time in your local city to promote your university and provide a direct link between your students and you! They can answer questions, upload posts and ‘survival guide’ videos on how to get the most out of your overseas program!



For more details, you can read our beginner’s guide to WeChat for Business.



2. QQ and QZone: Popular Among Students



qq tencent in china



With almost 1 billion active monthly users, media conglomerate Tencent’s QQ is one of the world’s largest social networks. QQ provides users chat forums, music streaming, emails, and instant messaging. Universities could send targeted promotional materials to potential Chinese students, like what schools in the Western world are doing on WhatsApp.



Colleges can use Qzone to share photos and videos. It is also popular for blogging, with many users posting every day; universities could easily use their own blog articles on the site after translating the content to Chinese. They could go further by inviting current Chinese students to contribute content and share their study experiences.



3. Sina Weibo: The Chinese Twitter



China software market, China B2B software, China business software, enterprise software



Sina Weibo has about 250 million active users and remains the channel of breaking news stories and topical content, including international celebrities and brands posting regularly. In fact, many schools are already active on the site.



Chinese students would likely go to Sina Weibo first when they are looking for their future institutions. This is important for higher education institutions especially since students themselves have begun to play a bigger role in selecting universities rather than their parents.



Like WeChat, collaborating with KOLs is key to success for Sina Weibo and getter a broader outreach of students.



For more details, you can read our blog on Sina Weibo below:


The Ultimate Guide to Sina Weibo: The Largest Micro-Blogging Platform in China


#4. Zhihu



zhihu in china



When you have a question, where do you find the answers? Most people turn to their friends or search on Google. However, for millions of people in China, they turn to Zhihu (知乎). Zhihu, which translates literally to “Do you know?”



Zhihu is a Chinese Q&A platform where questions are posted, answered, liked and shared by its community of users. Those who answer questions are experts and professionals from various industries – perfect for universities!



University lecturers can set up accounts and answer any questions prospective Chinese students and parents might have. Soft marketing is one of the best ways to interact with Chinese people. By offering helpand guidance, you will create a positive experience and awareness for your university for those reading the reviews.  This is a low-cost method that reaps rewards!


What is Zhihu: A Marketing Guide to the Largest Q&A Platform in China


5. SEO (Search Engine Optimization)



Baidu SEO



We’d be nowhere without SEO in the west and that’s no different to marketing in China! But without Google – what do the Chinese do? Use Baidu!



Baidu is a leading Chinese search engine and can be compared to Google. More often, potential students will search for top universities on Baidu. They are unlikely to search for a specific university. That’s why it is crucial for to come out as a top search result. SEO is the ultimate way to increase their presence on Baidu after a user has entered certain keywords or phrases.



On the whole, SEO is one of the best ways for institutions to effectively market themselves to stand out from the crowd. Want to learn more? Check out our blog below:


Baidu SEO Guide 2019: How to Boost Your Digital Presence in China 



TikTok: One To Look Out For





Tik Tok describes itself as a “Global Video Community,” with users sharing and creating videos on nearly any topic you can imagine. Tik Tok was able to reach a major milestone last year with it becoming the most downloaded app on both The Google Play and Apple App Store, placing it above even Facebook and Instagram! It has over 250 million daily users at the point of writing!



So – how can universities benefit from Tik Tok? Create interesting videos showing campus life, the cities and all the experiences the Chinese students can participate in at your university! Collaborating with KOLs and bringing together Chinese societies to help with the videos will create a seamless, exciting marketing campaign that could see your university going viral!



Check out our in-depth guide to Tik Tok below:


TikTok: A Look at China’s #1 Up and Coming Social Media



Wrap up: Education in China



Although the Chinese education system has its issues, it is quickly adopting best practices from institutions around the world. International Schools need to take advantage of their current superiority in the coming years to establish a strong foothold in the minds of Chinese consumers.



Further, as the desire to study overseas is still increasing,  actively reaching out to parents and students through digital marketing and social media can help universities get on the map and benefit from this wave of Chinese students!



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Dragon Social is a China Digital Marketing Agency dedicated to providing expert solutions to businesses around the world! Our team of professionals will take a deep dive into your business and determine the optimal channels and strategies for promoting your business in China, so be sure to Contact us for a free consultation!



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Tony DeGennaro
Tony DeGennaro

Tony is a passionate marketer with interests in social media and search engine optimization. He specializes in Chinese Social Media and Advertising. After getting his MBA in Marketing at CUHK he became one of the founding partners of Dragon Social in Hong Kong.

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