This website uses cookies and other technologies to help us provide you with better content and customized services. If you want to continue to enjoy this website’s content, please agree to our use of cookies. For more information on cookies and their use, please see our Privacy Policy.


切換側邊選單 切換搜尋選單

Western School Kids Flock to Shanghai

International Education in China


International Education in China


Chinese students have long headed West to get a better education. But now the reverse is happening, with western students heading to Chinese boarding schools to get a head start in a growingly competitive world.



International Education in China

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 481 )

In September, the secondary campus of YK Pao School in Thames Town in Shanghai's Songjiang District welcomed its first batch of almost 100 students for their first year of junior high school studies. Among them is a girl from New York. After a one-month adjustment period in China in the company of her parents, she will live in Shanghai on her own as a boarding student. She will join her Chinese schoolmates at flag-rising ceremonies singing the Chinese anthem. She will also learn to memorize Chinese poems.

The 12-year-old symbolizes a new trend in education – heading to a far-away foreign country to get a basic education. In Shanghai many such stories are already unfolding.

YK Pao School was founded in 2007 by Anna Sohmen Pao, daughter of Hong Kong shipping magnate Sir Y.K. Pao and member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, in memory of her father. The school is bringing the British boarding school system to Shanghai, seeking to provide an education from elementary school to high-school in a bilingual, multicultural environment.

Presently more than 400 students are enrolled at the Changning campus, which is an elementary school for day students in grades 1 through 6. About half of the student body holds foreign passports, including 15 percent who have no Chinese heritage at all.

Y.K. Pao's grandson Philip Sohmen, a cofounder of the school, notes that a growing number of Western parents and students are interested in attending a school in China. "They hope to build solid math foundations and master Chinese here," Sohmen points out.

Going to Shanghai for secondary education has become the latest craze in international education.

Currently 43,000 foreign students from 177 countries around the globe are studying in Shanghai, according to Shanghai municipal government statistics. Among them, 13,000 are enrolled in long-term programs that lead to a degree, 109 percent more than five years ago.

Due to the eastward shift in the global geopolitical and economic environment, Asia has emerged as a rising star in the international education market.

Singapore, Hong Kong, India, China and even Taiwan all hope to become regional centers of education. Last year, Ivy League member Yale University announced plans to establish a liberal arts college at the National University of Singapore.

Amid this growing trend toward the internationalization of education, Shanghai has already demonstrated that it has the ambition and ability to become a regional center.

Harvard Business School and the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business have set up offices in Shanghai. Other foreign universities have also sought to tap into China's vast pool of prospective students. Nottingham University founded a branch in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, in 2005, while Liverpool University is based in nearby Suzhou.

Motivation and Pressure for Change

Shanghai, however, is clearly far ahead of other Chinese cities in the race for international attention.

Shanghai's drive and motivation come from its position as China's financial and economic center.

The famous historic Bund along the western bank of the Huangpu River is Asia's Wall Street. The headquarters of multinationals from Europe and North America are located here. On the other side of the river, in Shanghai's Pudong District, a sea of glitzy skyscrapers has dramatically changed the city's skyline.

China's established strategy is to develop Shanghai into the nation's hub for international economics, trade, finance and shipping. And becoming an even more open, cosmopolitan metropolis is already written into the city's DNA.

Attracted by Shanghai's glitz and glamour and its successful transformation in the wake of the 2010 World Expo, many white collar workers from across China and abroad have moved here. With this influx of well-educated and well-off middle class residents, demand for internationalized school education has soared.

For the city this means increased pressure to provide top-notch schools with an international outlook.

Last year, more than 10 percent of the city's senior high school graduates skipped the university entrance exam, instead leaving the country to directly study at a foreign university. At the prestigious Shanghai Foreign Language School, a seven-year boarding school affiliated with Shanghai International Studies University, one-third of the 300 graduates chose to directly go abroad.

Yin Jie, deputy director general of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, acknowledges that over the past two years the ratio of graduates who have opted to directly go overseas to study has been quite high. He believes that China's notoriously difficult entrance exam is one of the factors behind their decision, but also the fact that based on their grades, students will be admitted to a comparably better university abroad than at home.

In Shanghai, even students at the elementary school level practice for the TOEFL exam, a benchmark for evaluating nonnative speakers' English proficiency, and high school students prepare to sit for the SAT college admission test, reflecting the trend toward studying abroad even before attending college. That trend has added pressure on improving internationalized education.

As a result, universities in Shanghai have striven in recent years to increase their students' international exchange exposure.

Of the city's 600,000 university students, 1 percent have spent more than a month on study tours abroad. That ratio exceeds 30 percent only at top universities such as Fudan University or Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Chinese Students Out, Foreign Students in

To expand overseas exchange opportunities, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission has launched a 30 million renminbi program that supports overseas studies or internships for high school students. Under the program, 12,000 students will be able to participate in international exchanges abroad every year.

To meet these targets, the Commission and local universities have been encouraging foreign universities to organize summer school programs for Chinese students. "Georgia Tech, for instance, has been sending students to Shanghai for many years now. I told them, you keep sending your people here so now it's about time that you do something for us," notes Yin in describing the commission's efforts.

But Shanghai does not stop at sending its students abroad. In a more innovative approach, the city also "imports" foreign education institutions to help establish itself as a pioneer of internationalized education.

New York University (NYU) is building its Asian campus in Shanghai's Lujiazui District. Planned as a comprehensive research university, the school will enroll students from 2013.

Education in China comes with many taboos because the government ideologically still maintains tight ideological control over the school system. There have been a number of high-profile partnerships between China and well-known foreign schools such as the Sino-European International Management Institute in Beijing, the Peking University–Yale University Joint Undergraduate Program or the Joint Institute of the University of Michigan and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. But most of these schools cover only selected academic fields and are dependent on their Chinese partner schools.

Yet last year, Beijing announced its National Outline for Medium and Long-term Educational Reform and Development for the 2010-2020 period, pledging "a reform of the education provision system." The "catfish" that were lured to China due to rising demand for internationalized education have now triggered a sense of competition among domestic education providers.

District  Government Vies for Top Schools

NYU Shanghai is the first foreign university to gain approval after the adoption of the National Outline to operate as an independent entity authorized to grant degrees.

NYU Shanghai is projected to eventually enroll some 3,000 students in various fields including history, international relations, economics, mathematics, engineering, and finance, notes Martha Johnstone, the university's PR chief.

Fifty-one percent of the students will be Chinese nationals, while the others will be students from around the world. Faculty will be both from China and abroad. A number of NYU professors have already expressed interest in teaching at the Shanghai campus.

That NYU picked Shanghai for its China campus is also owed to strong support from the Shanghai city government and the Pudong District government

Pudong's Lujiazui envisages itself as the Manhattan of the East, yet much to the chagrin of the local government, the district lacks a top-notch university.

NYU's strengths are finance and urban research. In order to lure NYU to the Pudong District, the local government pledged to provide the land and also included in its 12th five-year plan funding for the construction of the new university building and preparatory work.

In the past, education used to be the responsibility of education authorities. But in Shanghai, both the top-tier municipal government and second-tier district government are aware that economic development requires close cooperation between school campuses, science parks, and local communities.

In 2006, the government of Minhang District, for instance, took the lead in bringing together Shanghai Jiao Tong University, East China Normal University, the Zhizhu Science Park and Wujing Town to create a joint conference system to promote cooperation between tertiary education institutions, scientific research, and businesses.

An important figure behind the scheme is Sun Chao, the party secretary of Minhang District. As a former lecturer at the Law School of Yale University, Sun has an international outlook. He first allowed the two universities to open shop in the Zhizhu Science Park, which also houses the corporate headquarters or R&D centers of more than 30 multinational companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Coca Cola.

Then he thought up the idea of "villages of global minds" inviting some 10 world-class American universities, including Carnegie Mellon University, John Hopkins University, MIT, and the University of California in Berkeley, to open branches in Minhang District.

Shanghai is, of course, also facing formidable challenges in its quest to become the vanguard of internationalized education.

The Chinese tend to adulate all things foreign. Parents who have the financial means prefer to send their kids directly to top-level schools abroad rather than to their local branches, also because this spares them the stress of taking the competitive entrance exam.

But even if Beijing wants universities from around the globe to set up shop in China, the western tertiary education system still needs to adapt to Chinese human resources systems, Chinese culture and the stability of faculty. All these are factors that need to be considered.

Global education institutions keep flocking to China, and China's coming generation aspires to an international education. Considering the speed of education reform in Shanghai, it seems a given that even more Westerners will come to Shanghai to study.

Education has always been China's ideological fortress. This time the fortress is being stormed from inside with Shanghai heroically serving as the trailblazer.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz.