Which Country Should I Study In?

 

Overview

 

Country Selection Criteria

Which country should you study in? The simplest way to come up with an answer is to determine which country you want to work in:

  • If you want to work outside China, then study at a university with a high global league table ranking, preferably one situated in the country in which you wish to work.

  • If you want to work in China and can get a sufficiently high score on the gāokǎo to gain entrance to a top Chinese university, then study in China at the most highly regarded university that will accept you.

 

  • If you want to work in China but can’t get a sufficiently high score on the gāokǎo to gain entrance to a top Chinese university, then consider the merits and demerits of studying abroad. The decisive factor is whether the skills you would gain overseas based on your proposed course of study would be valued by Chinese employers on your return.

And which country do you want to work in? The answer – at least for those students who are already studying abroad – seems to be dictated by the availability of work: while family ties are important, the availability of work abroad relative to its availability in China may be the decisive factor (Cheung and Xu, 2015).

Key Factors

 

When it comes to selecting a country in which to study – and a university within that country – there are four key factors that you need to consider:

  • Career prospects: The university at which you study is likely to have a considerable impact on your future career prospects.

  • Subject-matter interest: If you have a strong interest in a particular subject, then you may wish to choose a university that excels in teaching this subject. Bear in mind that happiness in life depends to a large extent on how much you enjoy your work. If you aim to maximize your status or your earnings, then consider that you will always be surrounded by those who have a higher status, who have higher earnings. The wisest choice may be to become “a big fish in a small pond”.

  • Wanderlust: If you want to spend some time in another country – to experience a different culture – then you may wish to restrict the universities you consider to those based in the country of interest.

  • Overseas work opportunities: If, following your course of study, you wish to work overseas for a time – either in the country where you have studied or in a different one – then you may wish to restrict the universities you consider to those that are well-regarded by overseas employers.
     

Career Prospects

 

Your future career prospects and your opportunities for upward social mobility will often be the most important considerations when it comes to selecting a university, and, in doing so, you should consider the following factors:

  • Reputation: Employers, irrespective of where in the world they are located, use the reputation of the university attended as a rough proxy for the competence and capabilities of the attendee – employers are aware that high-ranking universities have stringent entry criteria. But reputation is measured in different ways: within China, Chinese universities are assessed principally on the gāokǎo score needed to attain entry; but for a university that is not located within China, its reputation – recorded in global and national league tables – is determined by the quality of its courses and by the innovative nature of its research.

  • Degree classification: The presumed capabilities of a university graduate who has attended a university outside of China are based not only on the reputation of the university attended but also on the degree classification attained: employers are not interested in how well a student did on the university entrance examination; they are interested in how well the student did on the course taken at university. The demands of university are very different from those of high school, and a student who does well on an entrance examination – which typically focuses on memorization and rote learning – does not always do so well on a university course – which typically focuses on the ability to think critically and to innovate. However, a lower classification, such as a 2:2, obtained at a prestigious institution may be more highly regarded than a higher classification, such as a 1st, awarded by a low-ranking university.

  • Course quality: It’s possible for a university with a strong global reputation to be comparatively weak when it comes to teaching: its faculty members may be spending most of their time producing the high-quality research papers that sustain the university’s reputation, and, as a consequence, they may be spending very little time in assisting students by way of well-taught lectures, by way of the close supervision of lab work, by way of their frequent attendance at seminars to provide feedback, clarifications, and encouragement. Knowledgeable employers recruiting in a particular field may well rate universities according to the quality of their teaching in a particular subject area. Course quality is less relevant in abstract subjects, such as philosophy and pure mathematics; but in applied subjects, such as medicine and computer science, course quality is particularly important, as the skills gained can be utilized immediately by an employer.

  • Influential contacts: The contacts made by a student – contacts made among both students and faculty – may well lead to personal and business opportunities in the future. However, for the contacts to be useful, the individuals must be, or must become, influential within their respective disciplines. Gaining influential contacts among faculty members is more likely when students take postgraduate courses. There is a strong positive correlation between how useful contacts are likely to be and the global reputation of the university attended.

  • English language skills: Gaining good English language skills is a valuable asset for progression in many careers – given the volume of English language documentation that many organizations need to process, given the need for employees to exchange emails and video conference calls with those overseas trading partners for whom English is either their native language or their language of commerce (about 85% of employers rate good communication skills as important).

  • Cultural exposure: Employers understand that employees who gain some exposure to, and some understanding of, the culture of an overseas country can facilitate trade with that country by improving the targeting of marketing, by expediting the negotiation of contracts, by helping to avoid and resolve disputes (about 65% of international employers rate overseas professional work experience as important).

  • Adaptability and self-reliance: The nature of work is changing, changing rapidly. In the past, you would have been taught a set of skills early on in your career, and you would have applied those skills thereafter. But with the relentless rise in artificial intelligence, many traditional jobs will disappear: in particular, those jobs that lie in the middle of the skill range will disappear, leaving behind only high-paid jobs that are very demanding and low-paid jobs that are menial in nature. The characteristic of the high-paid jobs will be that the skills required will be continually changing – you will need to be highly adaptable – and you will be expected to master these new skills all by yourself – you will need to be self-reliant. Increasingly, employers will be less interested in what you know than in evidence that you are a highly adaptable, self-reliant, self-motivated individual: one who can be given an objective, who can determine how best to achieve the objective, who can marshal the requisite resources, and who can realize the objective – all within a specified deadline. As you build up your career profile and enhance your CV, it’s important that you accumulate evidence that these highly desirable characteristics are also your characteristics.

Limiting Factors

 

There will almost always be restrictions on which universities you can attend:

  • Course costs: The cost of studying the same subject at different universities varies widely: the higher the global reputation of the university, the higher the fees. In particular, universities see overseas students as a major source of revenue, with some charging fees that are 3–4 times higher than those charged for domestic students.

 

  • English language skills: When studying at an English-speaking university, you will need to have a certain minimum level of English language skills – the level will vary between universities and between courses within a university.

  • Other admission criteria: You will need to meet other academic criteria to be granted admission, criteria that will also vary between universities and between courses within a university – criteria based on gāokǎo scores, SATs, A levels. The better the global reputation of the university, the more demanding these admission criteria will be.

Study Options

 

When it comes to selecting a university, there are three study options:

  • Study abroad

  • Study at home at a Chinese university

  • Study at home as a transnational student


This website focuses on studying abroad. But before you commit to this option, it’s worth considering the merits and demerits of studying at home, either at a Chinese university or as a transnational student.
 

Study Abroad?

 

The number of Chinese students studying abroad is currently about 600,000. Should you join them?

  • Career prospects: Studying overseas at a university in an English-speaking country may improve your career prospects and social mobility if and when you return home (according to the Chinese Ministry of Education, about 80% of students return home following their studies).

 

  • Subject-matter interest: For most subjects, it probably makes little difference whether you study abroad or at home in terms of subject-matter interest: you can probably find a university with special expertise in the subject of interest at home or abroad.

  • Wanderlust: It goes without saying that you won’t see the world – immersive virtual reality excepted – should you decide to stay at home.

  • Overseas work opportunities: Following your course of study, you may wish to work overseas, at least for a time. Studying overseas at a reputable university will greatly increase your chances of realizing this ambition – whether in the country where you have studied or in another English-speaking country.


Career prospects may be enhanced for a number of reasons:

  • Reputation: In China, there is a certain prestige, a certain cachet, associated with studying abroad. However, the quality of overseas universities varies widely, and most prospective employers will assess – using a global or national league table – the reputation of the university that you attended. Given the large number of Chinese students who study abroad, it is especially important to consider whether the skills you obtain overseas will be of value to Chinese employers – assuming you intend to work in China.

 

  • Course quality: The quality of an overseas course may be better or worse than that of a corresponding course taken at home. Hence, some prospective employers may assess the quality of the course taken using industry-specific information or a league table for the country in which you have studied.

  • Influential Contacts: The value of the contacts made while at university will depend on the reputation of the university, not on where it is located. However, having overseas contacts will be especially valuable for certain careers.

  • English language skills: One significant advantage to spending a number of years in an English-speaking country is that your English language skills are likely to improve considerably – at least your written and listening skills (your speaking skills will only improve if you engage with native speakers). Having such skills is a valuable asset for progression in some careers – but your skills will need to be of a sufficiently high standard.

  • Cultural exposure: Chinese employers who are involved in overseas trade regard the exposure of their senior employees to the cultures of their trading partners as a valuable commercial asset.

  • Adaptability and self-reliance: These are skills that all employers value in their senior employees, skills that will become ever more important in the decades to come. You are more likely to develop these skills by studying abroad: in part, due to the fact that you’ve studied in a different country, have been exposed to a different culture; and, in part, because of the focus that overseas universities place on personal assignments.

Study at a Chinese University?

 

If you study at a university in China, you won’t satisfy any wanderlust you might have, you are less likely to have overseas work opportunities once you complete your course, your English language skills are unlikely to improve significantly, and there will be no exposure to an overseas culture – but these concerns may or may not be important to you, depending on your personal interests and the career you have in mind.

Staying at home is likely to be neutral with respect to pursuing subject-matter interests, the quality of the course attended, and gaining influential contacts – factors which will depend on the university attended rather than on the country in which it is located.

One factor that is worth considering in more detail is that of the reputation of the university attended, as reputation carries significant weight with almost all employers. There is sometimes a perception that overseas employers regard overseas universities are better than their Chinese counterparts simply by virtue of being located overseas. This perception is ill-founded as the leading Chinese universities are well-regarded. True, Chinese universities are not recognized globally in the same way as, say, the University of Oxford (UK), the University of Cambridge (UK), Stanford University (US), or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) – globally ranked one to four respectively (2019 THE World University Rankings). But the leading Chinese universities – such as Tsinghua University, Peking University, and the University of Hong Kong – still have very respectable global rankings:

  • Tsinghua University – 22

  • Peking University – 31

  • University of Hong Kong – 36

  • Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – 46

  • Chinese University of Hong Kong – 55

  • University of Science and Technology of China – 93

  • Zhejiang University – 101

  • City University of Hong Kong – 110

  • Fudan University – 105

  • Nanjing University – 135

  • Hong Kong Polytechnic University – 173

  • Shanghai Jiao Tong University – 190


The Chinese universities listed above rank far higher than many overseas universities. For example, consider the State University of New York Albany: superficially, it might seem attractive as it’s located in the US and has “New York” in its title. However, according to the 2019 THE World University Rankings, it has a global ranking in the range 401-500, far below the rankings of the Chinese universities listed above. So, just as a wise aphorism warns you not to “judge a book by its cover”, so too you should not “judge a university by its location”.

The single most important argument against studying at a Chinese university is summed up well in the following statement (Mankowska, 2018):

  • The competitive, test-oriented, traditional, encyclopaedic Chinese education does not offer students the skills needed to succeed in the global labour market.

    
True or false? You need to ponder upon this assertion no matter where in the world you intend to work. What will the job market be like in five, ten, twenty years’ time? With the relentless rise in the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, what jobs will remain? What skills will future employers be looking for? Where in the world are you most likely to acquire those skills?
 

Study as a Transnational Student?

 

There is a third option, a halfway house between staying at home and travelling overseas: you can become a transnational student. If you become a transnational student, you study at home, but the course of study is associated in some manner with an overseas university:

  • Distance learning: A student studies a course at an overseas university via the Internet.

  • Local delivery partnership: An overseas university delivers a course by teaming up with a university in China.

  • Physical presence: An overseas university delivers a course by setting up a campus in China.


Some cases studies of transnational education can be found in the following report (click on the “Download” link):


Beware that even with distance learning, the course offered may be of a different standard to that provided to students who physically attend the overseas university. While such differences will rarely be reflected in league tables, employers may consider a transnational course to be of an inferior quality.

Studying at a high-ranking Chinese university will be more beneficial for your career than studying on a transnational course associated with a low-ranking overseas university. For example, Bangor University, Wales, in the UK, has a campus, Bangor College China, at Changsha, Hunan province, in China. But according to the 2019 THE World University Rankings, Bangor University’s global ranking lies in the range 401-500, far below the rankings of the Chinese universities listed in the previous section (there is no separate league table entry for Bangor College China). If you were an employer, who would you hire – all other things being equal: a student who had attended Bangor College China or one who had attended, let’s say, Tsinghua University or the University of Hong Kong?

Universities in English-speaking countries are highly commercialized, and they see the transnational marketplace as an easy way to cash in – literally – on the reputations of the top universities in the countries where they are located. It’s important for Chinese students to appreciate that a transnational UK or a US university is not necessarily good simply because it is associated with the UK or the US: each country has some of the best universities in the world – but also some of the worst. If you are considering the transnational option, try to ensure that the associated university is one with a very high global ranking – a university of which it can be said that “everybody knows your name”.

 

Warning – Look Before You Leap!

 

If your objective in studying abroad is to improve your career prospects, then think very carefully about whether this is a realistic aspiration! Twenty or thirty years ago, it was undoubtedly the case that studying abroad brought with it many benefits upon returning home. But the numbers of Chinese students studying abroad has grown exponentially over the years. The skills that many students gain overseas are now no different from those gained by students who study in China. The average salary of those Chinese students who have studied at universities abroad only exceeds that of those who have studied at universities in China by about 500 yuan per month. But many Chinese parents still make great financial sacrifices to pay for overseas tuition – and the extra salary earned may never compensate for the cost of that tuition, even after working for a lifetime. Sadly, all too often, the beloved “sea turtles” have transmogrified into “seaweed”.

So, before you travel abroad, imagine what will happen when you return to China – assuming that you intend to do so. If a prospective employer were to ask “What skills do you have that I can’t readily find in students who have studied in China?”, then how would you reply? Here are two good answers to such a question:

  • Specialist technological skills

  • Connectionist skills


Perhaps you studied engineering at an overseas university and developed skills in a new technology of which China has, at present, little or no experience. These skills will be in short supply in China. So, yes, you can readily gain employment and a good salary.

A Chinese business doesn’t like to deal directly with an unknown trading partner: it prefers to work through an intermediary, one known to both parties. Perhaps, you can use your experience of studying abroad to act as an intermediary, to serve in a liaison role. Perhaps you developed excellent English language skills while abroad; perhaps you gained significant insights into how businesses operate in the country where you studied. Even better, perhaps you gained contacts with the key players in some particular business sector while abroad. If so, then you will be ideally placed to act on behalf of a Chinese business that imports goods or services from, or exports goods or services to, the country in question.

You’ll find that some overseas universities are developing relationships with companies in China, with a view to providing employment for students when they return home. These initiatives are still at an early stage, but they can be expected to grow over the next decade as overseas universities seek to incentivize Chinese students to continue studying abroad. When making enquiries at an overseas university, ask about any initiatives that the university has at present. In some ways, these initiatives might begin to blend with the “physical presence” mode of delivering transnational education: an overseas university might not only set up a campus in China but might also set up businesses in China to employ its graduates. Study abroad might no longer be for a full course of study: it might be only of a sufficient duration to develop certain key skills. In the more distant future, it’s likely that most courses will be delivered entirely online: for example, the Coursera model – where some courses are free (with the student paying only to receive a certificate) and where even paid courses incur very modest fees (about 40–80 USD per month) – will probably be widely adopted, on a worldwide basis.

If you do decide to study abroad, then you need to use your time abroad to actively develop relevant skills. You need to be able to say to a prospective employer on your return “I have skills that you need, and here is the evidence.” There are various techniques that you can use to make yourself stand out from the crowd, but you need to apply these techniques consistently to build up your profile, to reinforce your CV, during the years you spend studying abroad.

Gone are the days when you could go abroad, get a liberal arts education, and expect to benefit from that education when you returned. Now you need to decide what subject interests you; what career a detailed knowledge of, and expertise in, that subject might realistically lead to in the China of the future; and then plan your university education – whether at home or abroad – to lead you expeditiously to that final destination.

References

Cheung, A.C.K., and Xu, L. (2015). To return or not to return: Examining the return intentions of mainland Chinese students studying at elite universities in the United States. Studies in Higher Education 40, 1605–1624.

Mankowska, A. (2018). Studying Abroad: A Case Study of Chinese International Mobility. Education in Modern Society 150.

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