Country Guide : Study in China

International students should find increasing levels of investment in tertiary education to be a compelling reason to study in China.

In 2012, China reached its target of spending 4% of GDP on education. And it is currently investing US$250 billion a year in “human capital” (source: New York Times), which includes the subsidy of education for young people moving from rural to urban areas, in an effort to lessen the gap between the educated elite and rural laborers.

The number of colleges and universities in China has doubled in the last decade to 2,409. The country’s current five-year plan, which extends to 2015, focuses on many development priorities that are appealing to western college graduates. And many Chinese universities are focusing on developing technologies that increase competitiveness with the West.

Key initiatives include Project 211, which aims to bring 100 Chinese universities up to a world-class standard, and Project 985, which aims to create an even more elite group of universities. Project 985 has resulted in the creation of the C9 league, which has ambitions of becoming something like the US Ivy League.

Universities in China

China has 25 institutions in the QS World University Rankings® 2013/2014. All but one of the C9 league are within the top 10 universities in China, according to this year’s ranking. These are: Peking University (ranked 46 in the world); Tsinghua University (48); Fudan University (88); Shanghai Jiao Tong University (123); Zhejiang University (165); University of Science and Technology of China (174); Nanjing University (175=), and Xi'an Jiao Tong University (372). The only C9 university not in the country’s top 10 is the Harbin Institute of Technology (491-500).

The remainder of Chinese universities that feature in this year’s rankings are all part of Project 211, suggesting that the project is on track for success

In 2012, China was the fifth most popular study destination for US students (source: Open Doors). It was also the leading place of origin for international students to the US. And reports that about 320,000 overseas students chose to study in China in 2012, an increase of 55,000 since 2010.

The government intends to raise the number of international students to 500,000 by 2020. As part of its plan to achieve this, it will provide scholarships for 50,000 international students by 2015.

Ready to study in China? Find out more about life in some of China’s major student cities…


Out of the 25 Chinese institutions featured in the QS World University Rankings 2013/14, five are based in Beijing, the Chinese capital. The highest ranked of universities in Beijing is Peking University (ranked 46), which is increasing its offering programs taught in English, in order to attract more international students. The university is also accepting more students through the Confucius Institute Scholarship Program, which aims to promote Chinese language and culture around the world.

Also in Beijing is Tsinghua University, the second highest ranking Chinese institution at 48 in the world, which offers a selection of master’s programs in English. Other top universities in Beijing include Beijing Normal University (252), Renmin University of China (401-450) and Beijing Institute of Technology (451-450).

Beijing is one of the most populous cities in the world (home to almost 21 million people). With plenty of nightspots and cultural attractions to choose from, international students certainly won’t have any difficulty finding opportunities to become immersed in local culture, while practicing their Mandarin. For those not fluent in the language, many signs are written in English.


Three universities in Shanghai feature in this year’s rankings: Fudan University (ranked 88); Shanghai Jiao Tong University (123); and Tongji University (481-490). The first two are in the C9 league of elite universities, indicating that China’s ambition of creating something like a US Ivy League is showing results.

Shanghai is the most expensive Chinese city to live in (source:, but this also means that it’s where many of the jobs are, which may make it attractive for those hoping to find a part-time job during studies, or full time employment after graduation.

Homesick international students in Shanghai might want to visit one of the “copycat” towns in the suburbs around the city, for a fix of their own culture. These include Spanish, British, Scandinavian, Canadian, Dutch, Italian and German settlements. Perhaps the best known is Thames Town, an eerily quiet English replica complete with cobbled streets, old English pubs and a statue of Sir Winston Churchill… all labeled with Chinese signs.


Xi'an is one of the oldest cities in China, with enough precious relics and historical sites to keep history devotees happy throughout their studies. One of the most famous and impressive sites is the Terracotta Warriors, which were made to be buried with the First Emperor Qin Shihuang, to serve him in the afterlife.

Universities in Xi’an include Xi'an Jiaotong University, which has benefitted from both Project 211 and Project 985, with a resultant strong presence in the QS rankings. There’s also Northwestern Polytechnical University, Northwest University, and Xian International Studies University, all of which have focused on establishing international relations with other institutions worldwide.


The hometown of Confucius now has a population of 91 million, so there is always plenty going on. This includes festivals throughout the year, opera and arts and crafts. The Shandong style of cuisine is also generally accepted as the most popular in China. Universities in Shandong include Shandong University, one of the largest in China, which has also benefitted from Project 211. Others are the Ocean University of China, Shandong Jianzhu University, Shandong Normal University and the University of Jinan.

Cost of living in China

Inevitably for an economy that is growing so quickly, the cost of living in China is not quite as cheap as it used to be. But tuition fees are relatively low, around US$3,500 per year in Beijing. And the cost of living in Shanghai, China’s most expensive city, is estimated to be roughly half that of New York (source: Numbeo).

With accommodation costing between US$200 and US$300 per month (depending on the city), and transport a handful of small change, you’ll be spared the financial turmoil of students elsewhere.

Admission to universities in China

To apply for a place at a university in China, international students can use the centralized CUCAS (China’s University and College Admission System) website, or apply directly to the university. International students can also choose to apply for a Chinese Government Scholarship Program, and will find information about this on the CUCAS site.

Chinese visa requirements

After being offered a place at a Chinese university, you’ll need to head to your local Chinese embassy, and apply for a visa appropriate for your length of stay. Chinese visa requirements state that for a stay of six months or more, you will need a study visa (or X-visa). For less than six months, a business visa (or F-visa) will do. If you do not receive your admission package in time, you may be able to apply for a tourist visa (L-visa) and convert this to a student visa when you arrive.

Languages in China

Major languages in China include Cantonese, Hokkien and of course Mandarin (also known as Putonghua) – which is the world’s largest language by number of speakers. Given China’s growing stature on the world stage, it is obviously going to enhance your employability if you know your way around Mandarin.

However, don’t worry if it seems like a tall order to study in a language that can seem completely opaque for the non-speaker. Many universities in China offer courses taught in English, and you’ll also find that many Chinese people speak English. If you choose to study in China in English, you won’t need to prove your fluency in Mandarin, but you may need to submit the results of a test of English proficiency such as IELTS or TOEFL.

If you decide that maybe you want to tackle a course in the native tongue, you will need to provide adequate Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK – Chinese proficiency test) results. You will usually need to reach level 3-8 (there are a total of 11), depending on your university and course. There are test centers around the world, so you shouldn’t have to travel too far. And there’s always the option of doing an intensive language course in China, which will also help you to get to grips with the country itself.