Faced with the challenge of university entrance on home shores, many young people in China seeking further education are turning to overseas institutions. Not only do they offer prestige, there is also the chance to adapt to another culture, writes Daniel Bardsley, foreign correspondent.
The furthest Tu Boqiang has ever travelled is Hong Kong - but later this year he will leave behind the familiar streets of Beijing and move to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the United States.
A high-school student, Mr Tu, 17, is set to enrol at the University of Nebraska to study biochemistry, with a view to eventually becoming a scientific researcher.
"I am very excited to be going abroad because I think there will be many challenges and there will be a lot of culture shock. I will meet different people and see different things," he says.
"I can reshape my character and I can get involved in a society that I have never reached before. I can make new friends and I can begin my study in a totally new environment and in an amazing environment."
It is a big step but Mr Tu's move overseas is not unusual: the number of Chinese students going abroad for university is increasing at a rate unusual even compared with the double-digit growth levels of so many facets of Chinese economic life.
According to the Institute of International Education, 157,558 Chinese students enrolled at US higher education institutions for the 2010 to 2011 academic year, up 21.8 per cent on the previous year and 60.4 per cent more than the 2008 to 2009 figures. Most enrolments are for postgraduates but the undergraduate figure is about one third of the total and growing.
Previously, it was mainly "super-rich" Chinese parents sending their children overseas, according to Li Tao, the Beijing branch manager for IDP Education, an agency that helped Mr Tu secure his university place.
"With the improvement in living standards, more and more families can afford to pay for their kids' tuition and living costs overseas," she says.
Several factors are driving Chinese students overseas, including the fiercely competitive nature of university entrance in China. Students often believe they have a better chance of entering a good-quality institution overseas than at home.
"Most parents want their children to go to a top university in the world, so they send them to go overseas," says Cai Binzhi, a consultant in the UK section of Beijing JJL Education Consulting and Services, another agency
It is, she adds, "quite hard to study at Tsinghua or Beida universities", naming China's top two institutions, "Beida" being the informal name for Peking University.
There is also the cachet linked to an overseas education, the belief it helps to develop critical thinking more than rigid Chinese studying methods, and the potential for securing residency in countries such as Canada. In the United Kingdom, students can earn a master's degree in only one year, much less than in most other countries. For the institutions, overseas students represent a significant source of revenue. While a number secure scholarships, many pay full tuition fees, which can be about US$30,000 (Dh110,193) a year, and sometimes several times the fee levied on local undergraduates.
While few would deny the importance of investing in education, for Chinese families, the majority having never been outside their country, the choices they face are bewildering: in the US alone there are more than 4,000 higher education institutions.
No wonder the agency business is thriving, with more than 400 believed to be operating in China, according to Ms Li.
Eighty per cent of Chinese students applying overseas go through an agency, according to a report from the higher education website Zinch China, quoted by Bloomberg.
"From the student's point of view it's not easy to choose which [universities] to pick. Sometimes they need some advice," says Ms Li.
The agency industry is not without controversy because many agencies have ties to particular institutions that pay a fee for each student recruited. This is on top of money the agent receives from the student, typically starting at about 15,000 yuan (Dh8,729), although some offer a money-back guarantee to students who fail to secure a place. Certain agencies take a cut of scholarships their students receive.
Also controversially, as well as helping a student fill out forms, there are many reports of agencies writing application essays or providing fake letters of recommendation from schools. These allegations are not linked to companies mentioned in this article.
Aside from agents, there are independent consultants who do not take commission from the institutions, but charge only the student's family. Among them is Hamilton Gregg, an American in Beijing who helps about 30 students a year, half expatriates, find places in overseas educational institutions, including boarding schools.
One of his tasks is managing expectations. Parents sometimes think success in the Chinese classroom means an Ivy League education is within their child's grasp.
"There's this really bizarre perception: my kid is in a really good high school and he's top of his class, so he should be able to walk 5,000 miles to a completely different education system and get into the best school there. That's really silly, but that's the expectation," says Mr Gregg.
Key is showing parents that a student does not have to go to a world-famous institution.
"For instance, when I talk to the parents, [I may say] if your child wants to be an engineer, you've probably not heard of the Florida Institute of Technology. Do you know the Chinese government loves kids from there? What we perceive to be true isn't necessarily what is true," he says.
Famous names still act as a draw, however, and among them are the top British boarding schools, and former pupils of these have gone into business helping Chinese students secure places.
Among them is William Vanbergen, an ex-Eton College student, whose Shanghai company, BE Education, also runs schools in China modelled on the British boarding school model.
Mr Vanbergen says Britain's oldest schools give good guanxi, the Chinese word for the connections that are so important in business.
"And it's not just with wealthy Chinese people. They're getting international guanxi," he says.
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