In this Inbound Insight series article, we look at the shifting patterns in Chinese outbound student mobility and explore the priorities of this student cohort when searching for student accommodation based on data gathered through the Global Student Living Index.

UNESCO figures show that China is the largest sending market in the world when it comes to outbound student mobility. In 2020, China had 1,088,466 students studying abroad.

Outbound destinations

The UNESCO 2020 data shows that the United States was the most popular destination, hosting 343,761 (31.58%) of China’s total number of outbound students.  The United Kingdom was the second most popular destination, with 143,867 (13.21%) Chinese students, followed by Australia with 128,183 students (11.77%), and Canada, which hosted 81,006 students (7.44%).  However, more recent data from each country shows that the number of outbound students from China has grown since 2020. For example, 2021/22 HESA data shows 151,690 students from China were enrolled in UK universities. Similarly, Australian Department of Education data shows that 156,217 students from China were studying in Australia in 2022.

Changing patterns in Chinese outbound mobility

Since 2019, there have been subtle shifts in Chinese student mobility patterns, which look set to continue. Poor employment prospects at home and a youth unemployment rate hovering around 21.3% mean that Chinese students are more interested in studying abroad than ever. However, geo-political situations, safety concerns, and a weaker economy are influencing decisions around study destinations.

A 2023 report from the China Institute of College Admissions Counsellors reveals that while the US and UK remain top study destinations for Chinese students, Asian countries are increasingly popular and are the third most popular destination, edging out Australia. Seventy-one per cent of counsellors surveyed reported they had also seen an increase in the number of students and parents interested in global campuses in China.

A New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting Company survey of 9,551 students and parents had similar findings, but results suggest that preferences are linked to the level of study. The New Oriental Vision survey found that the US and the UK are still the two most popular destinations for Chinese undergraduate students. However, Canada holds the third spot in terms of undergraduate student interest. The same survey also found that Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore have become more attractive destinations, while Australia has lost some appeal. Postgraduate students, however, still rank the UK as the most popular destination, followed by the US, with Singapore and Japan attracting more interest than Canada.

Regardless of which destination sits in third place, it is clear that Chinese students are increasingly interested in studying closer to home. Navitas education agent research suggests that this shift in interest is linked to concerns about cost, with over 77% of agents from Greater China citing the cost of study as an important factor in the choice of study destination.

Search priorities

Data from the latest Global Student Living Index (2023 Q2) shows that students from China have similar priorities to other students, although budget is less a concern than for other groups.

When choosing their accommodation, students from China are slightly less concerned about travel time to their place of study than most international students (75% vs. 81%). However, they place a higher priority on the staff/team (49% vs. 43%), and the availability of a flexible contract (52% vs. 41%).

Chinese students are also much more likely than other groups to prioritise living alone (60% vs. 51%) or living with their friends (31% vs. 23%) than the broader international student cohort. Bedroom space, kitchen size and facilities, technology/wi-fi and range and quality of amenities also rank highly for students from China when choosing where to live.

Room type and rent

Students from China are much more likely (54%) than other international students (23%) to live in a studio apartment with rent funded primarily by their parents. They are also much less likely to need to work part-time to help pay their rent. However, there are indications that part-time work is becoming more important as cost of living pressures increase.  Although their parents are more likely to be paying their rent, Chinese families are less involved in the accommodation search than those of other international students, and Chinese students are more likely (37%) to say their family were not involved in their accommodation search than other international students (35%).

Search resources

When it comes to resources used in the accommodation search, students from China stand out in that they are much more likely to use social media (36% vs. 30%) and education agents (24% vs. 13%) than other international students. They are also less likely to use university websites and general searches than other groups.


Chinese students are also more likely to book via an education agent (31%) than other international students (14%) or a letting agency (28% vs 8% of international students), and far less likely (15%) to book with a university housing office than other students (34%).

Global Student Living Index data also shows that Chinese students differ from the broader international cohort when it comes to drivers of satisfaction and the type of wellbeing struggles experienced. These issues are discussed in more detail in the GSL/CUBO report Future Proof: meeting the diverse needs of international students, available to download via the CUBO website.