SHANGHAI - American students are getting cold feet about studying Chinese in China, with many study abroad programs in the country seeing a substantial drop in enrolment over the last few years.
At the University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP), student enrolment in programs in China is expected to be less than half the level it was only four years ago. Washington-based CET, another leading study abroad group, says interest in China has been falling since 2013.
The apparent waning of interest worries some China watchers. Given the importance of the US-China relationship, having a group of Americans across different industries who speak Chinese and understand the culture is "a matter of national interest", says Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in Washington.
"We can't respond coherently, effectively and fully to China unless we understand China on its own terms," he said.
The Institute of International Education says the number of US students studying in China fell 3.2 per cent in 2012-13 to 14,413, even as overall study abroad numbers rose modestly.
American students' apparent loss of interest contrasts with Chinese students' clamour for a US education. The number of Chinese studying in the United States jumped 16.5 per cent in 2013-14 to more than 274,000.
LESS NEED FOR FOREIGNERS
For US students, China's notorious pollution is a concern. Job opportunities are another. As multinationals in China hire mostly local Chinese, a growing percentage of whom have studied abroad, they have less need for foreigners who speak Chinese.
"I came to China thinking I could learn Chinese and get a high paying job. I learned very quickly that was not the case," said Ian Weissgerber, a 25-year-old American graduate student in China. "A lot of Chinese can speak English just as well as I can, and Chinese is their native tongue too."
Gordon Schaeffer, research director at UCEAP, says surveys suggest the decline in study abroad programs in China might also reflect students' migration to science and technology majors, where courses need to be taken in sequence.
Some study abroad executives say a move toward more direct enrolment in Chinese universities could also, in part, account for fewer students taking traditional programs that typically offer a summer or semester overseas.
Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization and the author of a report on foreign students in China, says there are too few agents in the United States bringing students to China to study, and bemoans the US government's inability to force universities to send more American students there.