Select Committee on Home Affairs Additional Written Evidence

26.  Memorandum submitted by Wei Shen


  This paper aims to investigate some of the recent trends of incoming migration from People's Republic of China into the United Kingdom, examined within both historical and contemporary contexts. The focus of this briefing is to demonstrate the dramatic increase of Chinese students pursuing academic learning in the UK and its consequent impact on UK educational institutes, society and its economy through analysing student migration patterns, financial flows and individual case studies. It also points various modifications to immigration policies and promotes social debates on the impact of the phenomena of a massively increasing student flow for the UK.

—    In 2004, the United Kingdom has taken over USA as the single most popular destination for Chinese students. The number of Chinese students has increased dramatically in the past decade. It proves to be difficult to estimate the exact number of Chinese students in the UK although it is suggested to be in the realm of 80,000 in the academic year of 2004-05.

—    There are both push and pull factors for such a large amount of students to study abroad. Chinese students provide significant contributions to UK universities and economy. In a survey by Chatham House (2004) of 100 Top UK universities showed that Chinese students contributed £223 million GBP and £300 million GBP in 2002-03 and 2003-04 respectively.

—    The massive inflow of Chinese students has important social and economic impacts on the universities, local community. Necessary policy measures must be taken to ensure proper integration of Chinese students and provide necessary support to younger students and victims of crimes.

—    Immigration polices have changed in the past five years to provide more efficient and transparent services to international students including those from China. However there are still some drawbacks as shown in a few case studies.

—    There are more and more Chinese students returning back to China because of the growing economy in homeland and demand for talents. Chinese Government's active recruitment policy also contributes to this brain circulation. In the future better bilateral cooperation between Chinese and UK governments and involvement of private sector will enhance this "win-win" migratory flow.


  Migration from China to the United Kingdom and Europe is not a new business. The first wave of Chinese settlement in UK can be traced as early as the first half of the 18th century. Chinese migrants are among the older communities in London. In the past five years, Chinese migration to the United Kingdom has become the focus of major British and international media and raised great concerns for policy makers in both UK and China. This is a result of two human tragedies in the UK involving the loss of Chinese workers' lives, in Dover (June 2000) and Morecambe Bay of Northwest England (February 2004) respectively.

However this should not overshadow the complete picture of Chinese migrants in the UK, who are traditionally considered as the quiet immigrant group, and there is not much research available. With the opening-up of the Chinese economy since its economic reforms in the 1970s, there has been significant migration flows from China. Whilst in traditional migration theory emigration is driven by conflict, poverty, environmental degrades, most Chinese migrants are among the better off people benefited from the economic development. In the past two decades, we have not only seen the increase in quantity, but also a more diverse flow (IOM, Laczko and Pieke 2003), particularly with the emergence of student migration. According to a recent report from UNESCO and Ministry of Education of China, PR China is the No 1 source country for international students, with 460,000 in 103 countries across the world in 2002.


In the era of globalisation and knowledge driven economy, the demand for human capital is increasing in an unprecedented way. The rapid economic growth in China requires a vast amount of highly educated talent in the work force. The accession of China to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) again raises the demand for skilled labour with international qualifications, experiences and standards. Thus it gives great incentives for medium and upper class Chinese families, especially those in the coastal areas (which are the forefront of economic reform), to send their children abroad to seek advanced education opportunities.

There are both push and pull factors for Chinese families to send their children abroad. The prestige of foreign degrees and advancement in English and foreign languages are the key factors for securing a well-paid job in China. In earlier days, many Chinese students were either government sponsored or funded by overseas institutions; thus generous scholarships and excellent research facilities at leading American universities had attracted a large number of top Chinese graduates to continue postgraduate work abroad. In the past decade, we have seen an increase of self-financed students studying abroad. Generally, study costs at overseas education institutions are much higher than in China, but the low tuition fees in some countries in welfare European countries, such as Scandinavia, Germany and France, remain cost efficient and attract for many Chinese students. The fierce competition for National University Entry examinations together with family pressure for university education has also pushed the study abroad wave. The education system in China, with four years of study for Bachelor degrees and another two years for master qualifications, is lengthy compared with some European countries such as the UK. The deregulation of government policy on migration control has also made it easy for students to pursue education abroad.


With its advantages of language, academic reputation and history, the United Kingdom benchmarked its excellence in learning in PR China from the very beginning. However, the number of Chinese students in Mid-1990s is still relative small, with approximately over 2,000 Chinese students studying at Higher Education institute but this number has jumped over 20 times in 2003-04 (please see table 1).

Nowadays, it is estimated that more 57,000 Chinese students are officially registered with UK HE institutions, and are counted as the second largest student group in the UK after the EU. According to one official at the Education Section of the Embassy of PR China in London, there are as many as 80,000 Chinese students in the UK for the year of 2004-05, a massive increase of 10,000 for the previous academic year. Most Chinese students pursue studies in economics and business subjects and they are spread in universities from Southern Britain to Scotland and from Wales to Northern Ireland.


Without doubt, this massive student inflow has great impact on British education system as well as the society itself. Below are some major issues related to Chinese student migration:

Financial contribution

International students contribute greatly to the UK Higher Education and both local as well as national economy. According to Universities UK, in 2002-03 tuition fees paid by Non-EU students provided 7% of UK Higher Education sector budget. International students are worth over £10 billions GBP to the UK economy and over £4 billions GBP to the Higher Education. Chinese students take a great share in this financial contribution, by paying more than £800 million pounds to UK economy for studying and living expenses as shown in a recent Chatham House survey. The official registration number of Chinese students is around 43,000 students within UK Higher Education system during 2003-04 and over 90% of them are self-financed. The Chatham House survey of Top 100 UK universities shows that students from Mainland China contribute at least £300 million just in terms of tuition fees, an increase of more than 30% of the previous academic year (£223 million GBP for 2002-03). This gives a substantial income for British universities and for those facing financial crisis an important economic relief. British universities operate on the contributions from Government Grants and Students' Tuition Fees. In some extreme cases, Chinese students contribution equivalents to as much as 29% of Government Grants, as for example is the reported case of the University of Essex. Furthermore the income generated by living expenses such as housing and other consumption by Chinese students amount to a staggering amount of £479 million GBP which totals the Chinese students contribution to £779 million GBP to UK economy in just one year. This amount will certainly rise again as the increasing international students tuition and growing living costs every academic year.

A few (younger) students also find themselves in trouble (eg victims of crime or bullying). The wealthier students from China undoubtedly suffer from increased robbery, quite high levels of bullying, and threats to personal safety. It is not only computers and equipment that are targeted. The Passport itself is one of the most attractive acquisitions to thieves and gangs. These criminal organisations, often international in scope, will recycle them as part of organised illegal immigration.

With the tendency for younger Chinese students to go abroad, there has been vast concern over their safety in the UK, and accidents are frequently caught and reported by Chinese media which also attracted public pressure from both countries.

Immigration policy and case studies

Compared to other OECD countries, UK has a relatively high stock of international students. In order to retain this competitiveness, the UK Government has implemented a series of changes to promote faster and more efficient immigration procedures. Visa or Entry Clearance is the main obstacle for Chinese students and Asian and African students entering the UK. Up till now, one of the main criteria for the issuance of visa is the intention of leaving UK after studies and sufficient financial resources.

Since 1999, a series of policy changes was thought out to increase the UK share of international students. The growing number of Chinese students who wish to study in the UK has made visa applications almost double between 2001 and 2004-05. Flexibility in entry procedure and streamlining of visa services are just among them. According to the Education Section of British Mission in China, there were 19,632 visas issued in 2004. There is also a substantial amount of visa applications being refused (approximately 20-30% per year according to Chinese media and British Embassy). This outcome is mainly attributed to the fake documents supplied by the applicants and misleading conduct by student recruitment agencies. Under the new policy, students are not required to have an interview and in many cases judgements are based on solely the documents supplied by the applicants. It does in one way speed up the process, but it also omits the chances for students to offer clarifications and explanations unless so requested by the visa officer. On the other hand, as said earlier, some British institutions, especially language schools, pre-university colleges, may choose to place economic profits over teaching quality. These schools and sometimes fake institutions not only harm Chinese students, families and UK education image but create various problems from illegal students migration.

Recently the UK Government has implemented new legislation which allows students to gain work experience in UK. However they are mainly sector based and only cover students in medical, ICT and some other science subjects. A new scheme implemented from October, has allowed non-EEA nationals who have graduated from UK higher or further education establishments in certain physical sciences, mathematics and engineering subjects with good grades to remain in the UK for 12 months after their studies in order to pursue a career. This kind of policy adjustment is two fold: it makes a more attractive education package for international students, and furthermore, it is also part of UK government's strategy to retain international intellectual assets for UK's economy. There has also been regional initiative, such as the "Fresh Talents" scheme in Scotland to enhance the education package and attract more international students to study and work in Scotland after graduation.

Access to quality education

Local UK residents are starting to worry about local students' access to education, especially into the popular and highly ranked universities.

Seduced by the rich prospects offered by international tuition fees, many UK universities (including Cambridge, Oxford and other elite universities) have substantially increased quotas for international students, including, of course, those from China and naturally there may be less space left for home students, especially where, for lack of funding, there are restraints on expanding teaching facilities, buildings and equipment, due in part to a lack of Government funding or sponsorship.

Moreover, in individual classes, where well over 60%[12] may be students with limited English language skills, there are real fears among UK students and their parents that this will inevitably slow down the class teaching quality, both in speed of delivery and depth of content and intellectual rigour.

Competition among Universities

Competition between universities for student recruitment can impact negatively, in the so called case of "race-to-the-bottom". Most British schools use agents in China to help to recruit students.

The competition is fierce and bitter among them. It follows then for marketing and economic interests, some agents—together with schools—choose to ignore or at least lower academic requirements. As a result, many under-qualified candidates are recruited which eventually leads to drop out and illegal employment among those students in UK.

Social issues

For most Chinese student migrants, it is the first time for them to live independently abroad, away from home, from the close-knit family support and the unspoken shared values and cultural norms. They may well lack the ability to integrate and adapt to these new surroundings, which may well seem hostile to newcomers. This will not only cause academic problems, but also social tensions, posing serious security threats to the community.

With an average debt of over £12,000, many UK students are forced to take part-time employment while studying, in order to supplement their increasingly limited income and, being charged tuition fees, on top of taking out student loans. But these very same jobs are now sought by in-coming international students. To take a part time job helps defray what are to them huge living costs when compared with costs in their home country. So in a very immediate and visible way, we see more pressures on local residents in University towns within that scarce often tense labour market.

Some young migrant students are also induced or forced to join illegal work, such as drug dealing, prostitution and may become mixed up with criminal gangs, which pose even more security threats to the community.

Here there are some case studies which can illustrate some drawbacks of UK immigration policies towards Chinese and other international students:

Case A—Visa and Extension Fees

  Student A came to UK to study a bachelor programme in economics. Because her relative low score of IELTS (International English Language Test System) test score she was admitted with conditions to her chosen university. One requirement for entering her degree programme is satisfactory participation in the Pre-University Language Course organised by the university. Because of her conditional offer, she was granted a visa only for the duration of the language class. At the end of her language course, she has to apply for an extension for her visa. This does not only require a lot of preparation but also costs her a large sum of application fees. Visa extension fees have become an increasing financial burden to becoming especially after the raise of service charges by the Home Office. This is quite a common case for many students who could face a fee of up to £500 GBP for extending their stay in the UK. Student A is concerned about having to pay another £500 GBP for visa extension if she could not finish her BSc programme in three years time (because of placement). A total amount of £1,000 GBP is more than 10% of her annual tuition fees and much more than the average annual income of a worker in China as said by Student A. This high visa extension fees have been described as very disappointing by Universities UK and many UK educational institutes are nervous about its "detrimental" impact on their recruitment of international students. This may also lead to the opportunistic behaviour of international students to overstay in order to finish their studies without paying the extension fees.

Case B—Problem of communication within UK Government

  Student B came to pursue a PhD degree at a UK university. He was issued a three year student visa. However, as part of his research funding, he has been selected to work as a research assistant at the University in the summer prior to his PhD. After the hassles of getting a work permit, he applied for and was later granted another visa for his work permit (six months validation) at the British Consulate in China. He was assured that it would be safe to have two visas and it would not create any problem for his immigration status. Upon arrival in UK, he used his work permit visa to pass through the immigration control. When the student arrived in the university, he registered at the local police station with his two visas and was told everything is correct in order.

However, when he applied for a European Schengen Visa, he was told by the Head of Consular Services of a European Embassy that his long-term UK visa is not valid as it was issued before the short-term work permit visa (which will expire shortly). The student then was told to go to Home Office Headquarters in Croydon to verify his immigration status. After queuing in the rain and heavy winds outside the Home Office for hours, the student was told his student visa is not valid and he needs to get a new visa immediately. He was given the option to apply either by post or by premium service which will cost up to £500 GBP, despite the Chinese student who both of visas and explained his assurance from both British Consulate in China and his police registration certificate. He was under great time pressure and then told the Home Office operates differently from Foreign and Commonwealth Office. One other option is to get a new visa or certification from the British Consulate in China or get his old student visa approved and stamped at the passport control at British border. But he was warned about the possibility of being refused to enter although he had a "valid" UK student visa.

This was very difficult situation for a student who just arrived in the UK and early faced the risk of being expelled. This shows the lack of communication between different UK governmental bodies in managing student migration, in terms of issuance of visa. Although policy registration is compulsory, but it proves to have no legal power when the student presented his registration certificate in the Home Office. Eventually this Chinese student has to apply for a new student visa at a British overseas mission and cancel his previous student visa. So in total, a student who follows strictly all immigration rules ended up having three visas in his passport and spent countless days and nights worrying about his immigration position. This situation can be easily avoided by a more coordinated effort (data sharing, information exchange etc.) by different administrative bodies to provide a more simplified and user friendly immigration service to international students who often have less knowledge of legal and immigration rules.

Case Study C—Student Worker or Working Student?

  Student C comes from a middle-income family in China. His family has exhausted all of their financial resources to support him to study in UK. Unlike those from a wealthy background, his family expects him to find a part-time to defray the studying costs and financial pressure from the parents. A student C study in London, one of the most expensive places in the world but his interpretation was it would be easier for him to find petty jobs. However, with limited language skills he is already behind the class during the first semester of his studies. Instead of spending more time in the library, he had to work to finance his daily expenses. This made his studies worse. At the end, he decided to work full-time and seldom go to his university. His family does not know about this and thought he was a good student and worked hard in his spare time. He was also too ashamed to tell his family about his real situation when he went for home visit. He knows his family expects him to find a good job in London and earn the money back in UK.

However, as his student visa is expiring soon, he needs to extend his visa. Obviously, his university will not provide further registration certificate to him since he failed most of his courses. So he found a language school that charged him tuition fees and gave him the necessary papers for visa extension. The school is not interested his attendance but just the cash income. But for Student C, he could now continue to work in London as a "full-time student labour". In this case, one thing we could not ignore is the working condition these students are facing. They are in a way, "stateless" and are under pressure and risk everyday and they are often exploited by employers because of this.

There is one major draw back for studying in UK. This is the fact that UK is outside the pan-European Schengen Agreement, which allows Third-Country Nationals to move freely with Schengen Area. This would pose difficult for Chinese students' mobility within Europe and would be a major obstacle for them to participate in the newly implemented EU Programme, Erasmus Mundus. Last not least, many students are also concerned about having to fill landing card all the time ask immigration questions every time return to UK despite having a long term student visa. Often they find this as unwelcoming and are embarrassed when being questioned at Passport control.


The security measures after September 11 in the USA have tightened up students' flow to America. Consequently there appear to be more Chinese students choosing to study in the UK. In a recent British Council report, the Chinese student population is projected to reach 130,900 in 2020, a triple jump to the current official registrations.

Growing student migration from China will certainly affect China's ability to integrate into global markets. This could be a significant factor for the transfer of knowledge by students to their home regions. The Chinese Government, and particularly some Provincial Governments in coastal areas, has implemented several recruitment strategies to bring Chinese students abroad to work and invest in China.

There has been a tremendous result—the return rate of students is expected to increase by over 10% every year since 2001. More than 4,000 high-tech firms were set up in China by returned overseas students, who are called Hai Gui (which literally means sea turtle). There is also a tightening on the registration of education agents as part of government's action to regulate overseas education market.

Better migration management is needed to make a win-win situation for student migration, and improvement relies on institutional coordination and cooperation. For UK institutions, it is important to bear in the mind both the economic and social impact of student migrants' flow in the entire process from selection to integration. Exploitative behaviour by Agents can be avoided by using a selective list of Agents accredited by both Governments, and the mutual recognition of qualifications according to international standards.

Better data sharing would also help the management of student migration. Chinese Embassies and Consulates abroad have been asking students to register when they arrive in the new country. This is an essential requirement if the students want their qualifications accredited when they finish their courses. Unfortunately there is still little exchange between China and UK on student data. By means of data sharing, it refers to multi-lateral and bi-lateral sharing as well as intra government, such as in the case of Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Migration Department and Trade Department.

The private sector is also an important driving force for positive brain circulation. Many corporations are starting to recruit Chinese students abroad (Volkswagen, BMW, McKinsey), then train and repatriate them back to China. A private-public partnership between governments, universities and private corporations would help to sustain this channel of talent circulation. Fortunately, this is already happening in the UK. Companies like Ernst & Young have developed programmes to give Chinese graduates the chance to train in London as UK Chartered Accountants and later work in China with their valuable experiences in Europe.

In conclusion, this special migratory flow of Chinese students has a deep impact on the British higher education system, economy and society and brought UK and China in a closer community. In the 21st century it is of great interest for UK and Chinese Governments to encourage and facilitate such mutually beneficial global cooperation and in so creating a platform of "education sans frontiers".


Abella, MI: 2003, "Global Dimensions of the Highly Skilled Migration", International Labour Office (ILO), Geneva.

  Biao, X: 2003, "Emigration from China: A Sending Country Perspective",International Migration, vol 41, no 3, pp 21-48.

  British Council: Universities UK and IDP Education Australia 2004, Vision 2020: Forecasting International Student Mobility, British Council. Findlay, A: 2001, From Brain Exchange to Brain Gain: Policy Implications for the UK of Recent Trends in Skilled Migration from Developing Countries, International Migration Branch, International Labour Office (ILO), Geneva.

  Laczko, F: 2003, "Europe Attracts More Migrants from China", International Migration, vol 41, no 3.

  Nania, S; Green, S: 2004, Deus ex MA China: Are Mainland Chinese students saving Britain's Universities?, The Royal Institute of International Relations, London.

  Pieke, F, 2004. Chinese Globalisation and Migration to Europe. The Centre for Comparative Immigration Studies Working Paper, (94).

  Skeldon, R: 1992, "International Migration within and from the East and Southeast Asian region: a review essay", Asia and Pacific Migration Journal, vol 1, no 1.

  SOPEMI: 2001, Trends in International Migration, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Paris.

  Unknown author: China Daily, 8 April 2002, 140,000 Chinese Students Return from Overseas.

  Unknown author: Beijing Daily, 18 June 2002, Chinese Studying Abroad Top the World.

14 February 2006

12   Generally speaking, there is higher percentage of international students in postgraduate education. Of the 8,000 students at LSE, more than 60% are from outside the UK, and a very large proportion of those from outside the EU or from non-English speaking countries. ( Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 23 July 2006