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Tiger feet and the growth of education tourism

Education tourism is a booming $4.5bn business, and prospective students from China and their families are leading the way. Paul Greatrix examines the way a visit to a campus can inspire educational attainment.
This article is more than 5 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Parents in China are hugely ambitious for their children and their academic success. I have heard before about families with young children taking them on visits to nearby universities in order to inspire them in their studies and encourage them to aim for the best in their higher education. Until I read this piece in the South China Morning Post though I hadn’t realised this trend had gone international. And it’s very big business indeed.

It’s not entirely how clear they measure this but apparently:

Top overseas universities are reporting record numbers of Chinese tourists this summer as more middle-class Chinese “tiger” parents try to expose their children to wider academic horizons.

The theory is that by taking or sending their kids to visit a leading university this will somehow inspire or motivate them to achieve. And that is something worth spending money on. A lot of money:

Education tourism is a booming business in China – it raked in 30 billion yuan (US$4.5 billion) in revenue last year is expected to grow 30 per cent annually to hit a trillion yuan within a decade, according to state-run Xinhua.

Some 650,000 Chinese went on overseas study trips last year, Beijing Daily reported this month. The figure was an estimated 500,000 two years ago, according to Shanghai-based in 2015.

That’s a pretty large number of students heading overseas with a decent number of them heading to the UK and the US on very expensive trips:

Image: Shutterstock

This summer, One Smart is sending more than 450 students to visit top universities in Britain and the United States. A three-week trip to Britain – taking in big-name institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London as well as enrolment talks and cultural field trips – costs 50,000 yuan (US$7,500).

“For a very small cost, the children learn whether studying overseas is suitable for them and what kind of universities they prefer,” Liu said. “They return with greater confidence and are more motivated to focus on their studies.”

Although Britain and the U are the top summer destinations, study tours to Singapore, Australia and Canada are also popular. But not every child reacts quite the way they are expected to:

Shanghai resident Nancy Zhao took her 10-year-old son Johnny Yang on a tour of Harvard University in July but her son did not seem to share her enthusiasm for the institution.

“But to be honest, my son looked unimpressed with the campus. To him, Harvard is just a top world university. That’s all,” Zhao said.

They hoped for better at MIT but unfortunately the university does not permit this kind of campus tourism. Ms Zhaou was still optimistic about the inspirational benefits the trip would have though:

“My husband hopes our son can become a science and technology major. MIT is the best in this regard. So we really hoped Johnny could have a look around this university,” she said.

“I believe the trips to these top schools will be embedded in my son’s memories and will inspire him to study hard when he grows older.”

But it’s not just ten year olds and teenagers being sent to the US for university inspiration – this story notes that pre-school children are also spending time abroad for such purposes. You have to wonder how effective an overseas nursery experience is in assisting with subsequent entry to higher education.

There really does not seem to be much in the way of solid evidence to support the impact of education tourism of this kind but that doesn’t seem to have had much of a negative impact on numbers. Yet.

As with other forms of tourism though the impact of all of these visitors descending on universities and their towns can be quite overwhelming and unwelcome. It may be this which ultimately constrains the growth of this really quite unusual industry.

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