MUMBAI: The old guard of blue-chip foreign education, Britian, has been upstaged by an unlikely rival: China. Fresh data shows that there are more Indian students right here in the Asian neighbourhood than in the United Kingdom. Though Indian students have been going to China to study medicine in significant numbers since 2010-11, experts attribute the latest shift to the "NEET mess" (the change in medical admission criteria in India) that took many by surprise and saw even more medical aspirants flocking to China after struggling to clear the new centralized admission test. And now there is another preferential change: many Indian students are looking to pursue engineering there too. "It is a cost-effective destination, its medical degrees are recognized by the Medical Council of India, and the course is conducted in English," says study abroad-expert Pratibha Jain. There are now 18,171 Indians in China versus 18,015 in the UK, the numbers for 2016 reveal. "China was a natural choice to turn to for most Indian students who did not clear NEET as there is a language issue in the case of Russia. Also, there is a popular perception that doctor graduates from Russia find it difficult to clear the MCI qualifying exam to practise in India." The average tuition fee for a Chinese medical university is between $2,000 and $3000 annually, plus an additional $1,000 to cover living expenses. In 2015, the number of Indian students in China was over 13,500. as India ranked among the top 10 nations sending the highest number of students to Chinese varsities. In fact, China has now become the third most favoured nation of international students after US and UK. It has also paced up as a host destination and is the fifth-ranked choice for Indians leaving the shores for an education. UK on the other hand, had slid in popularity after it did away with posteducation work visas. "Apart from the fact that China is not as expensive as the West, they offer jobs. Also, more and more Chinese universities are finding a place in the global rankings, indicating that they are of global quality," says Karan Gupta, career and education consultant. South Korea continues to send the maximum number of students to China, but a close second is the US and Thailand comes next. Pakistan and India follow. When this decade opened, China was not on most students' radar; now, having made rapid strides in the unlikely field of higher education, it is attracting several thousand foreign students every year. Most of them are studying humanities, followed by medicine. As far as Indian students there are concerned, the largest slice is pursuing medicine. But as Maria Mathai, director, MM Advisory, points out, "What started with medicine is now expanding to engineering too as we see a lot of Indians now enquiring about computer science courses in Chinese universities."