Chinese students pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP
Chinese students pose for a graduation photo at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP

TOKYO – In an earlier article, China-US contest will come down to education“, I wrote about the crisis in American primary and secondary education. As promised then, this article addresses the relative decline of American universities in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

This change is not readily apparent. A large share of the best universities in the world are in the United States and they have a deserved reputation for excellence.

For example, the seventh annual ranking of the Best Global Universities conducted by US News & World Report and published in October 2020 found that 19 of the top 25 schools were American.

However, the arguably more internationally-minded QS World University Ranking published by UK company Quacquarelli Symonds in July this year found that 12 of the top 25 universities were in the US, five in the UK, three in China, two each in Singapore and Switzerland and one in Japan.

Then, at the beginning of August, the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University in Washington issued a report entitled “China is Fast Outpacing US STEM PhD Growth,” which concluded that: “Based on current enrollment patterns, we project that by 2025 Chinese universities will produce more than 77,000 STEM PhD graduates per year compared to approximately 40,000 in the United States.”

Of course, Chinese universities primarily educate Chinese students while American universities are geared to educating the world. Thus, the Georgetown study found, “if international students are excluded from the US count, Chinese STEM PhD graduates would outnumber their US counterparts more than three to one.”

China overtook the US in the number of STEM PhDs in 2007 and was 47% ahead by 2019. The change has been rapid and it remains so. In 2000, the US produced more than twice as many STEM PhDs as China.

The quality of Chinese university-level STEM education is also improving.

“Most of the recent and rapid growth in Chinese PhD enrollments comes from universities within the higher-quality tiers,” the CSET study found, and “because more than three-quarters of Chinese doctoral graduates specialize in STEM fields, this evidence indicates China’s STEM talent pipeline is becoming more robust.”

And, not surprisingly: “Given the scale of China’s investments in higher education and the high-stakes technology competition between the United States and China, the gap in STEM PhD production could undermine US long-term economic and national security.”

High school students visiting the Tsinghua University campus pose in front of the university’s memorial gate in Beijing. Photo: AFP / Goh Chai Hin

Remco Zwetsloot, one of the authors of the CSET report, was quoted in Axios as warning: “If this continues, there seems to be no way the US can continue competing with China on the talent front without immigration reform. It is just a numbers game.”

Because a large percentage of American students are not prepared for graduate studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the US depends on foreign students to fill its universities and pay the bills.

And it has been alienating foreign students – particularly Chinese students, who accounted for about one-third of foreign students in the US before Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and tighter immigration controls.

Efforts under both Trump and President Biden to exclude potential Chinese spies from advanced STEM research also have had an impact.

And according to Xiaofeng Wan, Amherst College associate dean of admission and coordinator of international recruitment, there’s also been a considerable impact from “the physical and verbal violence that ultimately resulted in … over 6,600 reported racially motivated attacks against the Asian community, especially the elderly and women.”

Wan notes that Chinese students contributed US$15 billion to the US economy in the 2018-19 school year when enrollments of foreign students peaked.

Another report says foreign student enrollments kept American universities afloat, rising by 55% from 2011 to 2019 while domestic enrollment stagnated.

After that, the Covid-19 pandemic caused international student numbers to crash worldwide, and the Delta variant puts recent signs of recovery at risk.

President Biden’s election has led to a notable improvement in how the US is regarded overseas and a more open immigration policy. But Amherst’s Wan is probably correct when he says that “a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels will take time. For the Biden administration, to simply distance itself from Trump-era anti-immigrant rules and ideologies may not be enough to fully rebuild many Chinese families’ lost sense of confidence.”

Commonwealth’s attraction

Studee, a UK-based organization that specializes in study abroad programs, repeats a common refrain on its website: “For decades, the US has reigned supreme as the world’s most popular study abroad destination.”

But a closer look at its own data shows that while the US is the country that attracts the largest number of foreign students, in 2019 only 26% of the total number attracted by the top 10 countries surveyed studied in the US.

The UK, Canada and Australia together accounted for 32% and China for 12%. The number of international students in China was almost the same as the number in the UK, while Canada and Australia were close behind.

The Red Building of Peking University. Photo: AFP / cnsphoto / Imaginechina

China attracted 46% as many students as the US despite its short history as an open country with modern universities. Most foreign students in China are from other Asian countries, led by South Korea, but there are substantial numbers from the US, Russia and France.

Finally, let’s return to the CSET ranking, which includes 100 universities in total. Of these, 29 are in the US, 17 in the UK, 17 in continental Europe, 12 in China (five of those in Hong Kong and one on Taiwan), eight in Australia and New Zealand, six in South Korea, five in Japan, three in Singapore and Malaysia combined, two in Canada and one in Argentina.

Grouping them culturally and politically shows 29 in the US, 30 in the British Commonwealth (which does not include Hong Kong), 17 in continental Europe, 12 in Greater China, 11 in South Korea and Japan and one in Latin America.

Or 73 in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand; 26 in East Asia; one in Latin America and none at all in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Clearly, the scale and diversity of university excellence in the West, the rise of East Asian university education and the educational weakness of other regions are phenomena as significant as the relative decline of the US.

As Winston Churchill put it in a speech at Harvard in 1943: “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” In this regard, Britannia still rules the waves.

But physical empires still exist. China is evolving from cheap hand assembly to fully automated manufacturing and has a huge internet sector. It has built the world’s largest high-speed train network, put a rover on Mars and launched its own space station.

All this requires first-rate STEM education, which in China is supported by a government of engineers rather than lawyers. Most likely, when it comes to nation-building, the education data will continue to evolve in its favor.

A graduate of Stanford University and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.