Internationalization of the Chinese Higher Education: The Case of Kazakhstan

30.05.2016 | Comments | Education | 1,434 Azhar Serikkaliyeva

China, with the largest population in the world of over 1.3 billion people, has moved into the second place in the world in terms of the size of its economy. The higher education sector has grown tremendously. Now China has a goal to accept 500,000 students by 2020 and the latest government figures indicate that it is tracking well toward that goal. China now is the world’s third most popular study destination after the United States and the United Kingdom.[i]

Various scholarships are established by the Chinese government, the Chinese local authorities, the Chinese Confucius Institutes (CCI), Chinese universities and enterprises to encourage international students to study in China. There are 2529 universities in China, but only 690 of them accept foreign students. 100 among these universities receive special government assistance.[ii]

In 1950, China accepted the first group of 33 students from the East European countries. By the end of 2000, the total number of international students in China has increased to 407,000. They are from more than 160 different countries. Among them, Chinese Government Scholarship students numbered 88,000, whereas self-financed students reached 317,000. Since 1997, the Chinese Scholarships Council (CSC) has been entrusted by the Ministry of Education with the enrollment and administration of daily operations concerning international students in China sponsored by Chinese Government Scholarships.[iii] The Chinese Government has adopted a “Plan for admission to study in China”. Great efforts have been made to create the conditions for foreign students on the issue of selection of specialties, comfortable living conditions, etc. Government adopted the “30 steps to improve the quality of Chinese universities” program.[iv] The number of foreign students in China reached 293,000 in 2011, it was 6.8% of the world volume of the international students. In 2012, that number reached 328 000. During 2010-2012 years the number of foreign students in China has grown until 11.3%. In the context of continuing of such dynamics, the number of foreign students in China will reach 500,000 in 2020. Even if the process of internationalization of the Chinese higher education started and certain programs were established, its several problems still were not solved.  Having great tasks, Chinese universities are still transforming into western system of education.  At the same time, by 2010, China doubled the quota for receiving government scholarships for foreign students. According to the executive secretary of the State Committee for the distribution of scholarship, Mr. Liu Jinghui fund, these measures will enable Chinas’ universities to gain international status, they will also stimulate further development of education in the country.  One of the reasons why foreign students are not enrolled in Chinese universities is the lack of Chinese language knowledge. Now Chinese language courses allow students to pass the state exam HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) for the certification of proficiency in the Chinese language and further higher education. Also, today some Chinese universities provide international bachelor, master and doctoral programs conducted in English that have no requirements of Chinese language proficiency. The proliferation of the CCI played a significant role in evaluating the amount of foreign students in China. First the CCI was opened in South Korea, nowadays the country is a leader by the number of foreign students in China. The CCI in 2014 numbered 475, with the existence of an additional 851 Confucius Classrooms (CC) located in 126 countries worldwide.[v] Over the past 10 years, approximately 3.5 million students have registered for one or another program in these facilities. Whereas the CCI’s charter is to promote Chinese language and culture abroad, one clear additional outcome is to contribute to the internationalization of the Chinese education as both an import and export phenomenon. China is leading not only by the number of foreign students accepted for training, but also on the number of students going to study abroad. Over the past 35 years (from 1978 to 2013), 3,058,600 Chinese students have studied overseas, which ranks China above all other countries in the world. In 2013 alone, 413,900 students studied overseas.[vi]

Familiarity with Mandarin is essential, and the combination of the CCI and the CC facilities has contributed to the growing total of approximately 100 million Mandarin learners around the world. The CCI program provides grant funding, educational resources, guidance on best practices and professional development opportunities. Through its flexible model, it addresses the needs of institutions ranging from large districts to individual schools. While many view the growth of the CCIs as a bridge to internationalization and as a contribution to the enhancement of mutual understanding and friendship among all the people, they have also recently served as a source of negative critique focused on what is viewed as a possible hegemonic character of their instruction.[vii] In June 2014, the American Association of University Professors called on universities to break or renegotiate their contracts with the CCI (there are more than a hundred in the US), because they “act as the Chinese government to ignore the lever and allow academic freedom”. Earlier, 100 professors from University of Chicago complained that the CCI damage “academic integrity”. In the article published in 2013 in the Nation journal, one of the academics of the University have described cases in which the various institutions of the country are involved in a politically engaged business. For example, there are cases where universities have been forced to cancel or transfer the place where the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for the university limits.[viii]

According to the China's Ministry of Education, a total of 377,054 foreign students from 203 countries and regions studied in China in 2014, up to 5.77 percent year on year. International students studied in 775 colleges, research institutes and other institutions across 31 provincial regions. 9.8 percent of them are sponsored by Chinese government scholarships.[ix] The Republic of Korea, the United States and Thailand are the three major source countries for international students in China. While student aid is certainly a factor in this growth, many students, including those from significant source countries across Asia and Africa, are attracted by China’s rapidly growing economy and profile on the world stage. However, survey by the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing think tank, shows that international students make up less than 1 percent of the students at Chinese colleges and universities.[x]

Figure 1. International Students in China (2014)[xi]

Rank Place of Origin Number of Students Percent of Total
1 South Korea 62,923 16.7%
2 United States 24,203 6.4%
3 Thailand 21,296 5.6%
4 Russia 17,202 4.6%
5 Japan 15,057 4.0%
6 Indonesia 13,689 3.6%
7 India 13,578 3.6%
8 Pakistan 13,360 3.5%
9 Kazakhstan 11,764 3.1%
10 France 10,729 2.8%










Source: Project Atlas

Since 2008 Kazakhstan ranks 9th at the Top 10 sending countries of total international student enrollment in China. Chinese education became attractive for Kazakhstani young people not only because of the amount of scholarships and the dynamic economic growth in China, it also has other reasons.

1. The ratio of prices for the higher education in China and Kazakhstan evolved until recently in favor of the high cost of leading Kazakh universities and cheapness of Chinese. Today, after inflation when the dollar relative to tenge increased two fold, possibly the demand on the Chinese higher education will diminish, because all the calculations for the Chinese educational services are made in dollars or RMB.

2. Comparatively low quality of higher education in Kazakhstan, both technically and in terms of human resources.

3. Unwillingness of many high school graduates to pass the Unified National Testing (UNT) of eligibility to enter the local university. Chinese universities also accept students without a certificate of UNT, and only on the basis of a high school diploma. However, they are first credited to foundation, and in the case of mastering the Chinese language at the appropriate level to enter a university, it is mandatory to earn the level from 4 to 6 (depends on the university and its rating) HSK.

4. Education in China becomes available for Kazakhstani people. In addition to improving the access to the information about studying in China, the Chinese universities started advertising itself at schools and HEIs in Kazakhstan. This resulted in the foundation of intermediary companies involved in the contact between the universities of China and Kazakhstan applicants. Today, a whole network of companies is established in the Kazakhstani market providing similar services, attractive and affordable by price. For example, through a similar company “MyChina” more than 2,000 students are studying in China.

11764 Kazakhstanis studied in China in 2014, it is a very high growth for a country with 17 million people. Interest in Chinese language and education in China – is a global trend that confirms the transcontinental spread of Chinese business. In higher education at the PRC students from Kazakhstan are mostly studying technical disciplines (eg. oil exploration and oil production, energy, engineering, construction and transport) and social sciences. Almost a third of Kazakh students study in Beijing - about 4000, in Urumqi – 1250, in Shanghai - 800, Xi'an – 700, Guangzhou 500, Wuhan - 400. There is a certain predominance of Beijing universities, Shanghai, Xi'an, Guangzhou, Urumqi, i.e. major cities of the eastern and north-western China, which are geographically close to Kazakhstan. For example, universities in Xinjiang in 2011 had an enrollment of 1360.[xii] In Kazakhstan the first CCI was opened in Astana at the Eurasian National University named after Lev Gumilev in December 2007 and in Almaty at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in February 2009. Later in 2011 the other two CCI  were opened in Aktobe and Karaganda, on the basis of higher education institutions in these cities.

Education of Kazakhstanis in China can act as a factor in improving the quality of the labor force in Kazakhstan, and as whole human development.  This process can be interpreted as an opportunity to strengthen the influence of China in Kazakhstan and the region – development of bilateral scientific-educational, socio-cultural, economic and trade, cultural ties and improve comprehensive international cooperation between Kazakhstan and China. On the other side, educational grants and scholarships of China in Kazakhstan are the major approaches of the ‘soft power’.

[i] 中国成世界第三大留学目的地 赶超日本市场.

[iv]中国教育报. 26.11.2013.

[v] China opens 475 Confucius Institutes worldwide.

[vii] Painter, H. Doubts about the integrity of Confucius Institutes lead to mounting criticism.

[ix] More than 377,000 foreign students in China in 2014.

[x] Zhao Xinying. China attracts more overseas students.


Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute's editorial policy.

Tags: China, Education, Kazakhstan


  • Junior Research Fellow

    Azhar Serikkaliyeva

    Azhar Serikkaliyeva graduated from China Studies Department of the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in 2008.