H3J84A Young Chinese people on campus
Despite the options abroad, many Chinese students are being drawn back to their home country © Alamy

Jason Li opted out of China’s domestic exam system in his mid-teens, moving instead to Canada to finish high school before completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo, about two hours drive west of Toronto. But he had no hesitation about where he wanted to go next to further his studies and pursue a career in finance.

“I didn’t even think for a second about coming back to China,” he says. “Canada is a nice place to live but, given the market here and thinking about my career, I had to come back.”

Mr Li opted to study for a specialist Finance MBA at the Tsinghua People’s Bank of China School of Finance in Beijing, a dual degree programme with Cornell University taught by professors from both institutions and for which Chinese and English fluency is required.

His decision reflects the views of many Chinese who, despite the options for study and work abroad, are being drawn back to their home country. Mr Li lives in Shanghai and works for a healthcare-focused private equity firm after a previous job at a Chinese securities firm. He was attracted to the programme for at least two reasons.

First, it is based in the capital, offering access to student, faculty and advisers drawn from the decision-making elite in business and government. “That’s a magical relationship for the future,” he says. “Execution takes place in Shanghai but the policy is decided in Beijing.” Second, because the programme is part-time, he can keep his job and commute for his classes over long weekends.

Ya Ru Chen, a professor at Cornell who oversaw the creation of the dual degree programme, which takes 70 students a year, says: “We want to grab the most talented people in a fast-growing market. They are doing well and can’t afford to take two years out to study full time. Demand is huge. The authorities put a cap on numbers, but we could easily take 120.”

Such views are reflected by Candy Li (no relation to Jason) who also lived and studied for an undergraduate engineering degree in Canada. She returned to her native Shenzhen to help run the family car parts manufacturing business.

She chose the specialist finance MBA in order to expand her expertise as the company gears up for an initial public offering. “We have lots of engineers in the family, but we needed strong financial expertise and a network,” Ms Li says. “This will give me the edge with policymakers.”

At the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, Michelle Lau, who grew up in Hong Kong and returned to help run the family healthcare business after studying at the University of California, Berkeley, says: “If you really want to understand China, you have to be in it. And Beijing is the capital: everything starts from here.”

Not every student takes the same view. At the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Vivien Chen left China to complete an undergraduate degree in Germany and is taking a part-time bilingual executive MBA after selling her digital start-up company. “I’m a person who loves change,” she says. “I always want something new. I’d rather go far away than the mainland. But not too far like the US, because of the travel time. For me, it has to be in Asia.”

At Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University, Charles Lu, who grew up in a family of modest wealth near Beijing, was tempted by the offer of a full scholarship to study abroad and the scope to broaden his horizons. He stayed on for an MBA, funded through a mix of scholarships and family support. “It gives me international exposure,” he says. “I’ll stay for at least three or four more years. I’ve settled here. I’m looking at doing a second masters degree.”

Fellow MBA student Naomy Gmyrek, who is half Indonesian and half Polish, says: “I lived in Singapore when I was very young, and my parents met here. I just love the energy and the nightlife. I have a fascination with Asia, and you can taste the diversity.”

For other foreign students in the region, the reasons for their choices include a mix of the course options provided, impressions from sample lectures, recommendations from family and alumni, and career aspirations. The number of foreign students studying in China still remains an intrepid few — just 3 per cent last year, according to a report by the Graduate Management Admissions Council.

At the Antai School of Business in Shanghai, Anais Pothon, who came from France because she was keen to work in China, says she was attracted to the city because of its entrepreneurship and as it is a base for many international companies. She likes the school for its wide range of course options, a focus on doing business in China, and its attractive downtown campus.

She was also offered a partial scholarship by the school to study its English language MBA with additional Chinese lessons. “I’d like to stay in Shanghai and help advise French companies wanting to invest here,” she says.

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