The number of foreign students enrolling in Chinese universities is increasing. About 320,000 overseas students came to China in 2012. Students from South Korea and the United States comprise the largest national groups among these students. By 2020, China plans to host 500,000 international students.
China’s increasing international prominence and the perception of Chinese as a language of increasing usefulness are among factors encouraging foreign students to give China a try. Chinese government policies are another. Where work visas are becoming more difficult to obtain, the range and number of scholarships is expanding. The Chinese government will support roughly 50,000 international students in China in 2015. There are also unconfirmed reports that the law around the circumstances under which international students can undertake paid employment are also set to change, allowing students to more easily and formally work around their studies.
For prospective students seeking to study either Chinese language or a degree in China, Chinese institutions and universities offer a bewildering array of scholarships and courses on offer targeted specifically at foreign students. Especially for students unfamiliar with the country, it can be difficult to makes sense of all the different opportunities on offer, and how best to approach them so as to maximize your chance of success. Here we offer some suggestions for how to plan your search for a scholarship toward the study of your choice in China.
A. By Type of Scholarship
The most common scholarship for international students by in China is probably the Chinese Government Scholarship administered by the Chinese Scholarship Council along student nationality lines. A full such scholarship covers all tuition fees, and includes free accommodation and a monthly living allowance. Accommodation is usually provided in dorms for foreign students, which tend to be much more comfortable than the dorms for local students, even if not always as comfortable as a dorm in a high-income country. The monthly allowance is not much, but it is enough for most students to cover their basic living costs.
At the undergraduate level, especially for OECD applicants, most recipients of these scholarships apply from their home country and local university, though this is not a requirement. Increasingly, and a little like the UK’s Chevening Scholarship program, many are relatively new graduates seeking to pursue graduate study in China before returning home for their career.
Generically, it is useful to have a close link to a good university at home and a professor there also for your recommendation letter. It is not obvious if having already spent some time in China facilitates the application. Having already been accepted into a Chinese university, or at least having a recommendation or letter of interest to supervise from a relevant Chinese professor might also help.
There are a number of provincial and city scholarships administered by local governments across China that are much less known and which to date receive many fewer applicants than national scholarships. Certain Chinese universities also offer their own scholarships for foreign students. Some of them, including the Beijing municipal government scholarship, only cover tuition fees, but others can also include living allowances and accommodation.
Applying for a provincial/city scholarship is a practical choice once you’ve decided which city/province it is that you plan to study in. At that point, application becomes a question of identifying how to go about the application. Some relevant links and tips can be found here.
B. Strategies by Geography
- Tier One vs. Tier Two City University Applications
There are numerous rankings of Chinese universities available. Many of China’s top universities are concentrated in Beijing, including what are generally considered to be China’s top two universities, Tsinghua and Peking University. On average, universities in Beijing and Shanghai have a higher proportion of foreign students and staff, and a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. It may be easier to find professors who have worked abroad and can provide resources in English.
On the other hand, there is often less competition for scholarships to study in second tier Chinese cities. In some cases this is despite the fact that some regional schools rank highly at the national level overall or by specific department. For example, China’s scientific research capacities especially are distributed across elite research departments across the country, as much as clustered in a few good schools in Beijing or Shanghai. Landlocked Heilongjiang province’s Harbin Engineering University is famed for its place in China’s shipping industry, as well as nuclear science. Hubei Province’s China University of Geosciences is highly influential in China’s mining and oil industry. Anhui Province’s University of Science and Technology of China, in provincial capital Hefei, is among China’s elite scientific schools. Shenzhen is home to a number of experimental Chinese universities campuses either as independent schools or as offshoots of elite universities from elsewhere in China, including Peking and Tsinghua Universities.
Studying and living in a second tier city can in any case be a more interesting experience than living in Beijing or Shanghai. Many of these cities have fast growing economies, and lots of new job opportunities are appearing for foreigners willing to take them. At the same time, these cities tend to be much less cosmopolitan than Beijing or Shanghai, and international students may find the local options for entertainment and out of school activities much more restricted. Since the use of English in these cities however is much less than in Beijing or Shanghai, first spending time in a Chinese province can be a good way to cross a Chinese language threshold.
- Applying from Home versus Applying from China
It is not understood if or how applying from within China or outside of China changes the chance of being awarded a scholarship. To the extent that a student already in China may default to being a fee-paying student anyway (in the case of high-income country applicants especially), this could undermine their scholarship application. The balance of this as a consideration by the awarding committees against study history, recommendations, is not known. It may also vary by scholarship type, university, etc.
C. Strategies by Language
- Scholarships for degrees taught in English
While undergraduate programs are almost universally taught in Chinese, there are an increasing number of universities offering post-graduate programs, taught in English. Many are specifically targeted at foreign students, and these have multiplied in recent years. To facilitate the development and longevity of such programs extensive – and often easily obtained - scholarships are often attached to their inaugural few years of such courses.
It must be added that the quality of the English-medium degrees is very variable. The teaching staff usually comprise Chinese professors whose English is not necessarily ideal for the purpose (similarly in some cases the students have imperfect English also). According to some informal reports, the academic standards expected of the students are different to the standards expected in Chinese-medium degrees, and the course contents may also be different given the different students being taught.
To some they offer the advantage of not having to spend an extra one or two years learning Chinese. The teaching methods and the programs are also tailored to the needs of foreign students – a factor however that may serve to reduce the direct China learning opportunity. Furthermore, enrolling on a degree taught in English means not having as much opportunity to learn Chinese, which many would consider to be one of the major benefits of studying in China. It also reduces the opportunity to interact with Chinese students, and is rather more of an international student experience in all senses. On the other hand, if you are unlikely to become proficient in Chinese in any case, and rather seek a two-year introduction to China, to learn some Chinese on the side, travel, and obtain a masters degree at the same time, this might be your perfect strategy.
To be accepted into a degree program taught in Chinese, it is necessary to meet certain language requirements. The usual requirement is to have passed a certain level of the HSK exam. The required HSK level is higher for humanistic majors, and lower for technical or scientific majors. Some Chinese government scholarships cover students with no prior knowledge of Chinese to study the language full time in China for either one or two years before starting their course. After their language study, the students have to be able to pass the HSK at the required level before embarking on their degree course.
It must be stressed that even foreign students enrolled in programs taught in Chinese often find that they can use English quite extensively. While it is necessary to be able to follow lectures in Chinese, foreign students are often allowed and even expected to write their research and thesis in English. This is partly in recognition of the fact that it is very difficult to learn to write fluently in Chinese as an adult, and in fact a student with only a year or two of Chinese study under their belt is quite unlikely to be able to do so. On the other hand, positively defying expectations will win respect.
Finally, if you are a Chinese language major, and able to compete successfully in a Chinese Bridge competition, this is often associated with ensuing scholarship success to pursue onward academic studies in China.
D. Strategies by Area of Study
Much the same as applying for a scholarship anywhere, it can help if you know exactly what you want to study, and led by which professor or group of professors. If in advance you approach those professors with your idea, and win their support for your intended research and area of study, their willingness to recommend you and agreement to supervise your research can help your application for a scholarship.
To summarize, there are a range of scholarships available for studying in China, at the national, provincial, city and university level (see resources below for further information). If you want to spend a couple of years in China to experience the country and its systems, then return home to begin or carry on a career - in which case mastering the Chinese language might be less important – consider the more easily available English language programs and extensive related scholarships. If your focus is on a particular area of research, find the relevant professor and department. With their agreement to supervise your research, ask that professor to write a recommendation for your scholarship application.
If rather it’s your dream to spend two years in Sichuan or Yunnan learning to cook local cuisine and while also studying Chinese tea culture, find a university in one of those provinces, and work backwards for a relevant language scholarship – provincial, national and university-based scholarships are available. There might even be a scholarship for the relevant courses at Sichuan Agricultural University, or elsewhere.
China's National Scholarships, Sinograduate
China's International Scholarships: What's Happening?
China Scholarship Council
Both authors were awarded Chinese government scholarships for part or all of their degree studies at a university in China.