DALIAN, China -- No country sends more students abroad than China -- a number that has reached more than 600,000 in recent years. But the pandemic has closed borders and raised anxiety across the world, serving a blow not just to the dreams of those students, but also to the agencies that support them.
"The number of students that leave China to study overseas this year will probably drop by 20%," says Sang Peng, president of the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association. "These are extremely tough times for study-abroad agencies," added Sang.
China had about 45,000 of these agencies that help students choose and apply to overseas schools as of mid-March, according to business database provider Tianyancha.
Located in this northern city of Dalian, Jiemo is one such agency.. "Sign-ups for those looking to study in Japan were down 35% in April, followed by a 21% slide in May," CEO Li Tuo told The Nikkei.
Formed in 2010, Jiemo is the biggest agency for studies in Japan, sending roughly 4,000 students to that country last year -- or about 10% of all Chinese students there.
Jiemo's revenue was increasing smartly, growing for the third straight by over 30% to about 100 million yuan ($14.1 million) in 2019. Then the pandemic hit.
"The recovery will take at least two to three years," Li said, noting that the company has shelved its plans for an initial public offering.
Jiemo says more than 30 partner companies have stopped sending students to Japan. China's central government has yet to offer any support measures for the industry.
Those leaving China to pursue overseas studies more than tripled over a 10-year period through 2018, when it hit 660,000. The most popular destination is the U.S., followed by the U.K., Australia and Japan. A drop in Chinese students will mean a financial blow to colleges and other education institutions in those countries.
In Japan, students from China account for about 40% of all international students, according to the government-affiliated Japan Student Services Organization.
Students are not giving up their plans to study abroad, though. "They have spent years preparing to go to foreign countries," said BOSSA's Sang. "It would also be quite difficult to change course and try to get into colleges in China at this point."
Only about 10% of Japan-bound students have cancelled their service contracts with Jiemo since February. The rest are patiently waiting until Tokyo gives them permission to enter Japan, brushing up their language skills in the meantime.
Moreover, an increasing number of students have been switching their destinations from the U.S. to Japan since April, said Jiemo's Li. The thinking is that it would be safer to study in Japan, where coronavirus infections are relatively low, than the U.S., which has the world's highest caseload and whose government is locked in an intensifying feud with Beijing. The growing trend of Japanese colleges providing English-only lectures and programs is also appealing to Chinese students.