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History of Chinese studying abroad

The history of Chinese students studying abroad can be traced back to the mid-19th century. In 1847, the first documented group of Chinese students was sent to the United States to study in Massachusetts (Pan, 1999). In the following decade, these students graduated from well- known universities in the United States and the UK before returning to China. This first group of students and those who succeed them in the following decades exemplified the need for Western learning in China. A few outstanding examples include: Yung Wing, graduate from Yale, who developed the first modern textile factory in China using equipment from the West; Tu Tingfang, who studied law in London, became the first Chinese barrister, and formulated the first code of commercial law in China; and Wu Lien, the first Chinese student of medicine at Cambridge, who became the founder of the Chinese Medical Association and made great contributions to the modernisation of medical services and medical education in China (Pan, 1999). The second half of 19th century witnessed more groups of Chinese students studying in some of the most influential universities in the UK and the United States, primarily majoring in medicine, economics, and engineering. These former students of Western learning became contributory forces for the modernisation of China at the turn of the 20th century (Pan, 1999).

In the 1950s, the Chinese government initiated an educational campaign with the aim of increasing the nation's literacy in both urban and rural areas (Research Team of Chinese Educational Reform and Development Studies, 2008). During this decade, groups of Chinese students were sent to the former Soviet Union to learn engineering, as per governmental agreements. However, the Cultural Revolution had a negative impact on the campaign and development of Chinese education. As an effect, only 337 students were sent to study abroad during those ten years (Research Team of Chinese Educational Reform and Development Studies, 2008, p. 13). In 1978, Deng Xiaoping restored college entrance examinations and once again began sending Chinese students to study abroad; these two elements were a historic step in the open reform of Chinese education (Chen, 2008). Due to the support of this momentous policy, the ministry of education significantly increased the number of students China sent to study abroad. An agreement was signed by the ministries of education in China and the United States, stating that 500-700 students and scholars could be sent to the United States within the 1978-1979 academic year. This was soon followed by agreements with the UK (1979), Egypt (1979), Canada (1979), the Netherlands (1979), Italy (1980), Japan (1981), Germany (1981), France (1981), Belgium (1981) and Australia (1986) (Research Team of Chinese Educational Reform and Development Studies, 2008, p. 17). These policies and agreements demonstrated the governmental strategy of improving Chinese education by learning from others.

The 1990s witnessed a new era of Chinese education and another round of dramatic reforms; the expansion of higher education enrolment was the beginning of China entering mass education. Accompanying this reform was a new economic model - introduction of tuition fees for studying at all universities in China. This model provided opportunities for a significantly higher percentage (nearly half), compared with the previous decades of the high school graduates to access higher education (Research Team of Chinese Educational Reform and Development Studies, 2008). Students now have a multitude of options for higher education - to study home or abroad. Facing intense competition in the examination system in order to be enrolled in universities in China, an increasing number choose to study abroad either with grants from the government or, more commonly, with financial support from their parents. Chinese people typically believe that the only way to provide a better life for their children is through education, and many Chinese families hold high expectations of educational quality in countries such as the UK and the United States (Redding, 1990; Pieke, 1991; Cheng, 1994; Chan, 1997, 1999).

Worldwide various universities see China as a major market for recruiting students to study at their universities. Driven by both internal and external reasons, China currently has the largest percentage of students studying abroad, accounting for 14 per cent of the world's international learners (CSC, 2014).

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