Tracking China’s Global Education Footprint

Is education an instrument of China’s soft power?  If so, how can it be measured?

After some review, there are four areas which I think warrant a deeper dive:

  • Government-led efforts through Confucius Institutes
  • University branch campuses set up offshore
  • Internationally mobile tertiary students in universities around the world
  • Chinese private investment into schools, education technology and related learning and training companies

Of course, there are other areas to consider: student exchange and scholarships programs, curriculum and technology exchanges, twinning programs, and online learning.  Yet these are more difficult to measure and I have not included them here (for now).

Here are the data points:

1. Confucius Institutes

There are currently 539 centers across four continents with Europe, the US and Asia representing 34%, 27%, and 23% of total centers, respectively.  Africa is a growing area of interest but the density within countries–in contrast to the US, UK, and Australia–is negligible. Part of this reason is the need for well-functioning and well-resourced international university partners.

Although there has been significant push back on Confucius Centers due to national security considerations in the US, and to a lesser extent Australia, the basic collaborative model remains valid in a world where Mandarin and Chinese cultural skills are in ever higher demand. In fact, China is already working on “optimizing” the spread of institutes and improving their teaching efforts. China’s higher education presence in Latin America is limited but likely to increase as commercial and trade flows between China and the continent deepen.  The same case can be made for Africa and in countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The chart below illustrates the breadth and depth of China’s government-led educational efforts, and where its priorities have been placed thus far.


2. International Branch Campuses

China has very few branch campuses outside of its territory–nine, of which two are collaborations in Hong Kong–in contrast to being a significant host for branch campuses (over 30) from other countries.   Branch campuses abroad usually require significant capital investment and global teaching resources, and this has simply not been a priority for development among Chinese universities, which have been more focused on internal development and global faculty recruiting.

Geographically, the latest campuses are in Malaysia and Nigeria (under development)–two key regions for Chinese education, but generally most have been close to home in Asia, as the chart below illustrates.


3. Internationally Mobile Tertiary Students

Students represent a tangible presence for Chinese soft power as well as a source of direct investment into host countries.  China’s outbound student enrollment and spending has already been well documented (see here) but its composition is slowly broadening away from the MESDCs (Majority English Speaking Developed Countries).

Asia is benefiting.  Outside of Asia, there are some widely dispersed enrollments across Latin America and Africa/Middle East, but these are relatively light.


4. Private Investment and Outbound M&A

According to available data compiled recently, Chinese investors have poured at least 3 billion USD into education investments across the US, UK and a few other countries including Singapore, France and Israel.  This is not a comprehensive investment tally but rather a focus on significant acquisitions and investment stakes since 2015 (which is where it matters, in any case).

Chinese investors have overwhelmingly focused on international K12 schools (eventually serving as pathways for Chinese students in the US and UK), a few distressed colleges in the US (also for pathways and vocational/business programs), a vocational platform for Europe (via DEMOS) and a few education technology investments.  There is little reason to think that this trend will change except perhaps toward a broader range of acquisitions into online platforms and supplementary education companies (eg. English language training, vocational concepts, workforce technologies and AI).

Private outbound education investment from China is still at an early stage.  This is particularly evident when considering the early stage of development among China’s leading education companies and investors, including unicorns.  As such, we should not be surprised to see a significant amount of outbound investment directed toward educational institutions and companies in the years ahead, both as a pure investment thesis as well as to improve their global competitive profile.



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