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Too many grads, but China can't slake thirst for learning

Here's a question you won't find on a college entrance exam: What do Disney and Duke University have in common?

Answer: They're both scrambling for a chunk of the rapidly growing market for U.S.-style education that Chinese thirst for.

China has too many universities with too many graduates and not enough jobs. This gives a big edge to students who earn a degree abroad -- still a prestigious achievement here.

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In 2009, Chinese made up 50,000 of the 200,000 international students studying in Canada. And a record number of Chinese high school graduates are applying for American universities, with Chinese undergraduates now representing the fastest-growing group of international students in the U.S.

In 2009-2010, a total of 128,000 Chinese were studying in the U.S., up 30 per cent from the year before, according to the Institute of International Education. About 40,000 of them were undergrads, a 50 per cent leap from the previous year and more than four times as many as five years ago.

These students pay full tuition (international students in the U.S. are not eligible for government financial aid), a bonus for schools whose endowments were hit hard by the financial crisis. Chinese are also looking beyond the Ivy League, applying to smaller state schools and even community colleges.

Some schools are targeting students at the source. Duke University recently announced it was building a 200-acre campus in Kunshun city on the Yangtze River Delta. Teachers College at Columbia University has a prep program for high school seniors in Beijing, with a tuition of US$45,000.

The market for intermediary schools, meanwhile, grew from just over one billion yuan ($150-million U.S.) in 2003 to more than 2.5 billion yuan in 2010. These private training schools charge students several thousand dollars for a bundle of services including training for visa interviews, help with university applications, English tutoring and more.

One new program, U.S.-Sino Pathway, aims to send Chinese high school students to one of six participating universities. Northeastern University in Boston devised the curriculum and Kaplan Inc., a for-profit education company with branches in eight Chinese cities, handles the administration.

And then, of course, there's the massive English-language learning market, which has doubled over the last five years to an estimated $2.1-billion annually, according to McKinsey & Co. There are an estimated 50,000 organizations and companies offering private English classes to the more than 300 million Chinese studying the language.

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Pearson, a U.K. based education company, plans to double its schools in China over the next five years. Raffles Education Corp., the largest private education group in Asia, owns Oriental University City, a 3.31 million square metre campus in Langfang, Hebei province, which provides education services to 9 colleges with a total student population of 27,000.

Walt Disney Co. has ten English schools in Shanghai and five in Beijing, and it plants to double its presence in China this year.

The company, which charges $1,800 a year in tuition, insists its schools are about teaching children, not promoting the brand in the world's second largest economy. Never mind the Mickey Mouse sculptures and Little Mermaid flashcards.

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