IT SEEMS that even some of Singapore's brightest students, who are well-versed in Higher Chinese and hail from top junior colleges, are leery of going to university in China.

Says the China embassy's second secretary for Education, Mr Bai Yanlei: "They are scared at the thought of having to attend all their lectures and take notes in Mandarin."

But despite the language barrier - which Mr Bai reckons is the biggest obstacle stopping many from heading to China for further studies - the number of Singaporean students doing so has been increasing steadily every year, from 583 in 2002 to 1,500 in 2007.

The Singaporean students in China are predominantly Chinese, though there are a couple of Indians as well. Most are doing undergraduate or postgraduate studies in fields like Chinese history, philosophy, culture and traditional Chinese medicine.

But there has been an increase in the number of students pursuing engineering, science, economics, business and law, as well as professionals taking short courses on language or culture.

Singapore students gravitate to top universities in China like Peking University in Beijing, Fudan University in Shanghai, Tsinghua University and Zhejiang University, joining the thousands of other foreign students in China now. There were 190,000 of them in 2007, coming from 188 countries.

The growing appeal of China's universities could be due to increasing interest in China's 5,000-year-old culture, suggests Ms Zhou Jianping, the China embassy's counsellor for education. "It is an eye-opening experience, particularly so for Chinese people in Singapore whose roots are in China," she says.

In addition, living costs and tuition fees are lower in China than in other popular overseas study destinations like the United Kingdom or the United States. A year in Fudan, for instance, costs between 23,000 and 25,000 yuan (S$4,800).

China's economic clout is another factor, says Mr Bai. Singapore's trade with China reached a record high of $91.6 billion in 2007. Adds Ms Zhou: "People realise that to forge business relationships, they have to first understand China and Chinese."

Mr Bai reckons that the number of young Singaporean children studying in China, whose parents are working there, is far greater than the number of graduate and postgraduate students. A number of these parents are there expressly for the purpose of exposing their offspring to the language and culture.

"When they are young, it is easy for them to pick up the language," says Mr Bai.

The Singapore Government has also been encouraging Singaporeans to head east for their degrees by offering scholarships to those who want to study in China. This year, the Public Service Commission launched a scholarship that enables recipients to take a four-year undergraduate programme in China, followed by a two-year master's programme anywhere in the world.

However, compared to, say, Australia, where there are 22,000 Singaporean students at any one time, Ms Zhou acknowledges that the numbers going to China are still small.

She says: "Apart from language, Singaporeans may not be used to the lifestyle in China, the pollution, the transport."

But Mr Bai believes that there are great benefits in store for those willing to face the initial hardships. He says: "In the beginning, it may be difficult. But it's a matter of gritting your teeth and going ahead, for within half a year to a year, the rewards will be sweet because your standard of Mandarin will very quickly have improved to a high level."