How to pick the best city and university to study in China

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In a country as huge and diverse as China, choosing where to study is a big decision. Your final choice can have a huge impact on your overall experience in China, as well as future study and professional outcomes.

Researching where to study and understanding what you want to take away from your time in China is step one in choosing where to study. For some people, this may equate to full-time employment post study or the cultural experience of living in a Hutong in Beijing. For others on a tight budget and a penchant for authentic and tasty Chinese cuisine, there are also plenty of alternatives to the major international hubs. Other important factors to consider are the cost of living (particularly rent), campus location, non-academic opportunities, local dialects, university rankings, and reputation.

Asia Options have listed our pointers below to help you pick the best city and university to study at in China.

1) University Rankings

One of the first indicators foreigners look at when choosing to study in China are university rankings. At Asia Options we’re slightly sceptical of this particular indicator because although rankings such as the QS University Ranking system are reliable guides to the prestige of universities in China, these rankings usually reflect the number of academic citations – or other subjective indicators of reputation – and do not capture overall teaching quality, campus experience, and other important factors. Discipline-specific course quality and language programs are also not necessarily captured in overall rankings.

However, at the same time, the top ranked universities in China do typically have more established language programs and therefore have more levels of proficiency and electives to choose from. Attending a reputable Chinese university will also earn the appraisal of Chinese friends and potential Chinese employers due to the high thresholds sets for local students – despite the somewhat easier path of paying your way in for foreign students.

Asia Options would like to make a special mention for ‘Normal Universities’ (universities focusing on teaching degrees) in China as they are well regarded by foreign students for the quality of Chinese teaching. Among the most popular are Nanjing Normal University, Beijing Normal University, East China Normal University and Yunnan Normal University.

2) Fees

Tuition fees at top ranked universities, including Peking University, Tsinghua University and Nanjing University, are typically 30% to 50% more expensive than programs offered by less prestigious universities in second and third tier cities. You can find quality language programs with a similar structure in middle-sized cities such as Wuhan, Chongqing and Changsha.

This, however, is not a major consideration for students studying on exchange as they are exempt from paying local tuition fees and instead pay tuition fees to their home university.

3) Campus Location & Lifestyle

When choosing where to study you should consider the campus location and its proximity to the city center. More and more universities in China are migrating to large university districts far away from the traditional city center, which may limit your access to events and social life in the city. Outer districts are also often devoid of traditional cultural and scenic spots.

As many universities have multiple campuses, it is worthwhile researching exactly which campus you will be studying at. For example, Xiamen University’s main campus is renown as one of the most beautiful in China but the campus for foreign students learning Chinese, unfortunately, looks nothing like the front page of their marketing material!

While established study districts in larger cities, such as Wudaokou in Beijing, may be far from the city, they are becoming very foreigner friendly with a growing scene of coffee shops, bars, and international eateries. You should take the time to search your shortlisted university on Google or Baidu, and view the search images to get a feel for the campus and surroundings.

Nanjing University campus
Nanjing University: This was one of the reasons I chose to study in Nanjing

4) Choosing the Best City

For an optimum environment to study Mandarin it is best to choose a location where Mandarin is widely spoken such as Beijing, Tianjin and north-east China.

While Mandarin in other locations such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu may deviate slightly from ‘Standard’ Mandarin, this will not prevent you from speaking fluent and understandable Chinese. Also, other cities further from Beijing such as Chongqing and Shenzhen offer important trade connections. Intimate knowledge of the culture and on-the-ground contacts in these cities may help your future career. Other cities may have cultural, economical, social or historical connections to your interest areas and study, such as anthropology and study of minority groups in Yunnan, World War II history in Nanjing, or an interest in startups and tech companies in China’s silicon valleys of Hangzhou and Beijing.

Climate, cost of living and environmental standards are also important aspects to consider. Rent for example is typically half the price in cities outside of Beijing, Shanghai and to a lesser extent Guangzhou. However, if you are living on campus under the auspices of a Chinese Government scholarship than this shouldn’t be a major consideration – unless you plan to move out of the dorms and live off-campus. You can find more information on these aspects by searching on Wikipedia, comparing cities on an air quality index, asking general questions on Quora or city based expat websites (i.e. Nanjing Expat and TheBeijinger), and asking your Chinese classmates in Australia.

5) Mastering Chinese

There are many different dialects throughout China — from Cantonese in Guangdong, to Shanghainese and the Wu language family in Shanghai. Despite regional variance, Mandarin is the standard language for education and business. However, day-to-day interaction is often in the local dialect and the pronunciation of Mandarin is less standard in many cities.

For those that are intent on mastering Chinese, the north of China, including Shandong, Tianjin, north-east China and particularly Beijing, are the ideal places to perfect the Mandarin dialect and an authentic northern accent.

However, there are other factors to consider. Studying in Peking University may not offer the same immersive language environment as studying Chinese in a small city in the south such as Nanning where the likely existence of a handful of western students will force you to speak Mandarin at all times. Study ethics, attitude, social habits and discipline are also vital factors and therefore location may, in fact, be only secondary in importance.

6) Transferring to Full-Time Work

For those looking to build a career in China, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou – and to some extent Shenzhen and Hangzhou – are the cities to look at. There is a much higher concentration of foreign companies and business organisations, such as the chambers of commerce to draw on for connections and employment opportunities. This is not to say that there are no jobs available in other cities such as Nanjing and Wuhan (including local Chinese companies), but for one reason or another most foreign students migrate to China’s major international cities such as Beijing and Shanghai for employment opportunities.

Finding work after study can take time and patience and personal connections are vital. Asia Options’ tip is to study where you want to work. This option allows you to build up a support network through classmates, alumni, chambers of commerce, sporting groups and other organisations, which you can leverage even before your study comes to an end, and to ensure your transition from study to work is quick and easy. You can easily sit job interviews before you’ve graduated as well.

Time is often of the essence to finding work in China due to visa support which quickly winds down after study. Switching from a student visa to living off a 30-day holiday visa can be a precarious situation. Therefore migrating from your studies in Nanjing to finding employment in Beijing will probably add on an extra 3-4 months to the job hunt as you establish a new network and sit job interviews in your new city – which may or may not be financially and practically possible under limited visa support.

7) Going on an Adventure

If finding a job in China is not an immediate priority and you will be returning home post your study experience, and you have a more adventurous side and tolerance for cultural surprises and tasty local food, you should consider China’s other study draw-cards including Kunming, Xi’an, Xiamen, Nanjing, Qingdao, Guilin, Chongqing, Chengdu, Dalian and Suzhou. Each of these cities provides access to western style amenities, international cuisine, and pockets of foreign communities, but it is also much easier to escape and integrate into normal life in China or to practice your Mandarin with locals. Random opportunities such as TV cameos and visits to Chinese friends’ hometowns also tend to present more often in these cities for foreign students. For those looking to cut themselves off even further from Western civilisation and English speaking classmates, consider checking out Hefei, Harbin, Changsha, Weihai or Fuzhou.

Transitioning to the above-mentioned cities after living in Beijing and Shanghai is notoriously difficult after being spoiled with top notch foreign cuisine and nightlife options in tier one cities, so it’s best to experience China’s frontiers earlier when you’re young and up for an adventure. You can then transition to a first tier city on your second or third stint back to China when you are ready to work or study long-term, and you begin yearning for more comfort and normality in your life in China.

The Asia Options team have created a Chinese Language Program Review section to help point you in the right direction and we have reviewed a number of university and private Chinese language programs. Check it out!

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Olly Theobald

Director at Asia Options.
Olly works in Hangzhou China and is enthusiastic about entrepreneurship, e-commerce, Asia education, data science, and foreign languages. Olly is a graduate from RMIT University and the Hopkins Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. Olly speaks Mandarin and Korean.

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