The sea of students returning from studies abroad to work in their home countries can make a lot of waves. In the mainland, hai gui, a pun on the phrase "sea turtle," refers to just these kinds of returnees. Those who are still job- hunting are called hai dai, a homonym for "seaweed." Sea turtles who cannot find a job are known as hai shen, homonymous with "sea cucumber," with shen meaning "leftover."
To avoid inhabiting the bottom of the ocean like seaweed and sea cucumbers, youngsters thinking of studying abroad should consider checking out the Sea Turtle Index.
Created by the Economist Intelligence Unit with funding from the Bank of Communications, the index ranks 80 cities based on potential returns on educational investment for foreign students.
"For high-net-worth individuals, finding quality educational investments for themselves, their children or grandchildren is an important way of passing on their wealth [to future generations]," said Zhou Kunping, vice general manager of BoCom Financial Research Center.
"The quality of the university is not the only thing you need to consider. Other factors, such as the cost of living in that particular city and safety, are all practical issues that concern many families."
Existing rankings, such as the QS - or Quacquarelli Symonds - and the Times Higher Education world university rankings score institutions based on factors such as quality of teaching, research output and influence, reputation and the number of international faculty members and students. These rankings have US Ivy League schools such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology among the top five worldwide.
In contrast, the Sea Turtle Index sees education as a holistic experience enhanced or hampered by the economic, political and cultural context of a city.
The index assesses cities based on five types of investment returns in decreasing order of weighting, namely - quality of education, work experience, social experience and, with equal weighting, financial and real estate. Each type of return or indicator is divided into four or five sub-indicators.
There are 24 sub-indicators, each given a score out of 100. A sub- indicator score represents how a city stands in comparison with the one that performed the best for that particular sub-indicator.
For example, Hong Kong received a score of 75 out of 100 for the university rankings sub-indicator compared with US city Boston, which ranked first in terms of university rankings with a score of 100.
Overall, Montreal was tops, followed by London and Hong Kong. The top-ranked US city was Boston, home to Harvard and MIT, in seventh.
US cities performed badly due to high unemployment rates, expensive undergraduate programs and a lack of good postgraduate visa programs, according to Alexander van Kemenade, EIU's director of custom research in Greater China.
Canadian cities like Montreal had an edge because of federal-level policies, such as creating a competitive environment for universities - which are managed by provincial governments - resulting in high-quality university programs. Canada also offers generous visas of up to three years for graduates without a work sponsor.
City-level factors, namely its high- quality but inexpensive undergraduate programs and low cost of living, played a bigger role in pushing Montreal to the top, ahead of cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, which came fourth and 15th, respectively.
Hong Kong took third place. The city's excellent performance in the index was partly due to its open banking system and real-estate market to foreign investment, increasingly high-quality education, good regional and international links and cultural diversity.
The SAR is also the top destination for real-estate returns. High rent, a drawback for students looking to live in Hong Kong, is simultaneously seen as reflective of high returns on real- estate investment in the index.
Rent is accounted for in the "cost of living" sub-indicator, which also includes the cost of food.
Hong Kong scored zero out of 100 for cost of living. But in the average rents sub-indicator under real-estate returns, higher rents reflect higher returns on a home purchase, where Hong Kong scored 96.1.
The index does not favor those who can afford home purchases over those who can only afford to rent, though. The cost of living sub-indicator is weighted at 6 percent in the overall index, almost double the weighting of the "average rents" sub-indicator of 3.1 percent.
The Sea Turtle Index is available for free online. Users can also select multiple cities and plot their indicator scores on a pentagon graph for comparison. The data used to build the index is valid for at least a year.