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For over a decade, China has been a key student source market for the UK. According to HESA data, since the 2012/13 academic year China has been the largest contributor of international students to the UK, overtaking the former dominant source the EU. The number of international students studying in the UK from China and the EU ran almost parallel until the 2016/2017 academic year, after which the gap between China and the EU has grown significantly. While one might contribute this to Brexit, EU student numbers did not so much decline as plateau after the referendum. Instead, the reason for this widening of the gap between source markets was a rapid and consistent increase in the number of Chinese students studying in the UK.
HESA data on international students in the UK, 2006/7 to 2019/20
HESA data on the 2020/21 cycle will not become available for several more months, but preliminary feedback from the sector, and the results of our three Student Crossroads Surveys, have all shown that Chinese students have been disproportionately impacted upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese students, the data says, are more likely to cancel, defer or switch from their study destination. Our research also revealed that Chinese students are less interested in postgraduate work opportunities in the UK, a key draw for students from South Asia, and have considerably different concerns and priorities to students coming from other parts of the world.
In our earlier blog, Indian Student Demand for the UK, we highlighted the need for institutions to diversify their international student populations in order to avoid an overreliance on specific countries, namely China. However, there is no denying that China will remain a big player for institutions even if they successfully diversify. To suddenly lose the Chinese students the UK higher education institutions have come to expect and rely on every year could have a dramatic impact on overall recruitment outcomes. It is therefore critical that, while investing in new markets and diversifying the student population, institutions also understand how the Chinese market is reacting to the prolonged COVID-19 situation and what they can do to continue to attract Chinese students during this period of instability.
Changes to Chinese student application demand during COVID-19
To understand how Chinese student demand has changed during COVID-19, we need a clear understanding of the typical patterns in the recruitment cycle of Chinese students and how they have shifted since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Venice Yun, Destination Director at IDP China, has first-hand insight into the peaks and troughs of student interest witnessed by IDP counsellors on the ground. According to Venice, in a typical year prior to the pandemic “Most applications were submitted in July to December in 2020” with different in application peaks depending on the study level. Venice reported that “undergraduate applications were highest from September to January, while for postgraduate applications there was a longer period of higher applications lasting between July and December.”
However, during the pandemic, these well-entrenched cycles became highly disrupted. Venice explains, ”2020 was special, everything was pending while changing. When it comes to students’ interest, the peak in applications came when the pandemic in the UK was well under control from May to October. The troughs came in November and December when the 3rd round of lockdown was announced and all flights to the UK were suspended.”
Venice’s feedback reveals that Chinese student applications are highly dependent on the status of the UK regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating that students further down the funnel and on the brink of committing to a UK institution would pause or cancel submitting an application to the UK depending on the state of the pandemic and travel restrictions.
According to Venice, the key concerns Chinese students have regarding studying in the UK are “health and safety concerns, especially since November when the new variants of the virus were discovered”. While this feedback demonstrates how little control institutions had regarding ensuring Chinese student interest at the peak of the pandemic, it has positive connotations for the UK moving forward. With COVID-19 cases falling, and the vaccine rollout proceeding well, there is a key opportunity to communicate the UK’s progress in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic to students, in addition to making them aware of the potential to have a vaccine on arrival.
The second highest concern of Chinese students, according to Venice, is “the accessibility of the UK, whether students are able to fly to the UK and have confidence they will be able to fly to the UK later in the year, particularly given that flights between China and the UK have already been suspended once”. With accessibility and the ability to enter the UK to commence their studies a key priority highlighted by both Venice and our Crossroads research, UK institutions should consider how they can reassure and support students to successfully arrive in the UK. It is critical that Chinese students are kept up to date with the latest Government policies, the traffic light system, what current policies mean for travel to the UK. Institutions should also continue to communicate to the government the need to keep routes open for international students. Finally, there is a key opportunity for institutions to take the lead by offering to pay for students quarantine, support them in getting tested, and communicate how students can access health care, vaccinations, and general student support upon arrival in the UK.
Trends in online search volume and the impact of COVID-19 in 2020
Having established the impact on the applications cycle, for a better understanding of the full Chinese student demand picture in 2020 we should also look at top of funnel search-demand trends. As demonstrated in the graph below, after a strong February and early March, traffic on our sites saw a sharp and significant decrease as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold globally. This fall in traffic was felt across the top four destination countries, with the UK seeing the largest decline but due mostly to being the most in-demand country prior to the pandemic.
IDP Connect IQ Chinese Student 2020 destination demand trends by volume
While applications peaked over the summer when COVID-19 cases were low, this was not matched by a return in search traffic, which remained low over the summer months. It is therefore most likely that the applications received from Chinese students over the summer were from students who had undertaken their research at the start of the year, paused in their application due to the pandemic, and then proceeded when cases were lower. While positive that Chinese students who had chosen the UK did continue with their application when the pandemic was more under control in the UK, the fact that search traffic did not begin to pick up until later in the year indicates that top of funnel interest from China may be slower to recover than hoped.
There are however two positives from the 2020 search volume trends, firstly that the UK remained the most popular search destination for almost the entire year and secondly that towards the end of the year, despite lockdowns, traffic for the UK was beginning to recover.
It is important to note that Australia has been one of the worst-hit study destinations for international student demand, due largely to its complete closure of borders to international students. The UK must then be wary of becoming complacent during the slow return of Chinese demand. Inevitably some of the demand for the UK currently would otherwise have gone to Australia and is vulnerable to competition when the latter’s borders reopen.
However, while the sector largely acknowledges the latent threat of Australia in the future, another destination to consider a key competitor for Chinese student demand is America. We can see that in 2020, the USA briefly outperformed the UK for demand at the end of September and early October. The potential of America as a top competitor for Chinese student demand becomes more apparent when we look at the 2021 trends.
The October 2020 spike
The period from the end of September 2020 to early October 2020 also saw a significant, sudden and short-lived spike in searches for both the UK and USA that exceeded the period prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. This deviation from the wider 2020 trends is interesting but must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Venice commented that “it is interesting to see the dramatic spike from mid-September to mid-October. There was nothing special happening in the China market during that period. Since October 1st to 8th is a national holiday, most people were preparing for the holiday and travelling around.”
It seems likely that one of the biggest drivers for the return in student interest was the reopening of UK universities on September 18th and the return of many Chinese students, as well as the arrival of new Chinese students who may have been concerned they would not be able to begin their studies. We know that, while marketing plays a critical role in recruitment, word of mouth and peer-to-peer recommendations remain the most trusted and relied upon source of information. As such, it is highly likely that those Chinese students who successfully returned to, or began, their studies at, a UK institution reported their success to friends and family back home, encouraging their peers to investigate the UK as an option.
This peer-to-peer feedback will also have coincided with wider UK news reports, information from institutions, and our own marketing, likely tapping into much of the pent-up demand from Chinese students who had thus far held off on researching their options in earnest. Finally, it is worth noting that the spike in traffic also coincides with the weeks leading up to the deadline of some Chinese student-specific scholarships, such as the Chevening Scholarship for Chinese students.
While it seems possible that the above reasons contributed to the UK increase in traffic, it’s hard to explain the spike in the demand of the US, as the UK had consistently received larger sessions than the US up until this point. Equally, while less significant than in the UK and USA, the increase in traffic was also seen by other destination countries, even those that remained closed to international students such as Australia. We know from our Crossroads research, that Chinese students are willing to change their study destination for face-to-face teaching, and according to Venice, “Chinese students are increasingly applying to multiple destinations, rather than just one or two.”
It may therefore be that, buoyed by the success of some Chinese students in returning to or starting their studies overseas, students began researching their higher education options, but were more likely to have the USA as a second choice for other destinations, such as Australia and Canada, than the UK. This “second choice search traffic” therefore leading to a higher spike for US institutions overall. Should this theory be correct, the key takeaway for institutions is to take additional steps to engage with their current Chinese students and alumni as a platform through which to communicate the positives of studying in the UK to their peers back home. The voice of those students currently in the UK is likely to hold more power than multiple marketing campaigns.
Chinese Student Destination Demand 2021: The story so far
Turning attention to 2021, the picture for the UK is a mixed bag. The UK began the year with the largest volume of Chinese student demand, albeit with America having closed the gap compared to in 2020 and has seen a slow but steady increase in volume since the start of the year. However, the recovery of the USA has been even stronger and is a cause for concern. Since the middle of February, the USA has been tracking at a similar volume of Chinese student searches to the UK, even overtaking the UK by some margin over March.
IDP Connect IQ Chinese Student destination demand 2021 (Jan 1 to May 3) by Volume
Our data shows that America is the immediate competition for Chinese student demand as interest begins to recover, possibly as a result of an improving COVID-19 situation, better international relations between the USA and China since the presidential election and Biden’s outspoken support for international students. We can also see a slow climb in interest for Australia which suggests the destination could recover strongly when borders re-open.
To try and understand these changing trends in Chinese student demand, and what the UK can do about it, it is crucial we identify the key motivations for Chinese students to study abroad and in the UK specifically. According to Venice, for Chinese students, “The key motivation [for studying abroad] is to upgrade their education background, either by achieving a higher degree, such as a Masters degree, or by having study experience in a higher-ranked university. The final goal of this education upgrade could be more employment opportunities back to China and further career paths.” She goes on to explain that, traditionally, the key draw of the UK has been the quality of its institutions, how well UK institutions perform in global rankings, and the fact that UK degrees are well respected and recognised by employers in China: “Chinese students are very much relying on ranking, as to some extent, their choice is decided by the viewpoint of their future employers. When employers only know about the top-ranked universities, Chinese students will just fight to get into those big names. Therefore, institutions should take steps to help Chinese employers better understand the general education quality of UK. This is especially important for institutions that might not be ranked highly but that have special features, such as internships, specialist courses etc, that will appeal to Chinese employers. Enhancing the employability of Chinese students in China across a range of courses will help the market to diversify and develop in a sustainable way.”
Part of the UK’s competitive strategy must include further promotion of these aspects of the UK study experience, with messaging centring around the quality of the institution in global and subject rankings, but also through amplifying Chinese student alumni success stories. Venice also suggested that UK institutions should do more to promote the opportunities of the PSW graduate route. Having graduate work experience in the UK is considered a strong addition to Chinese students’ CV’s when they return to their home country, but this relatively new opportunity has failed to effectively filter through to the market.
Venice also highlighted that a key concern for Chinese students during and in the aftermath of the pandemic is the policies of destination countries regarding the health, safety, and support of international students. She emphasised that positive steps being taken by UK institutions or government often do not filter through to the Chinese market and that institutions can be slow to update their in-market contacts, website, and marketing to students with this critical information. Students are more interested than ever in the details, whether that be on their courses, on travel and quarantine requirements, applications requirements or the support available in-country. To remain competitive, UK institutions must be communicating clearly how students will be cared for and supported through the whole journey, from application through to graduation.
Additional insights from Venice Yun
Venice goes into more detail into how the pandemic has changed the appeal of the UK, where competition is coming from and what UK institutions can do to maximise Chinese student demand in 2021 in our latest Global Student Marketing podcast – available to listen to here:Listen to podcast
Given the strong start for the UK in February and early March, it seems the strong upward trend in Chinese student demand seen in the years prior to 2020 would have continued were it not for the pandemic, which suggests there is potential for a strong recovery and a return to the upward trend, which could result in numbers of Chinese students that exceed historic intakes when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and student confidence returns. However, this return to strength will not happen on its own.
This is a crucial moment, a golden hour for UK institutions. UK universities must work both independently and as a collective to identify the unique aspects of a UK education that appeals to Chinese students and that other destinations, and institutions, cannot replicate, or at least do not deliver to the same level.
Our data indicates there is strong potential for the UK to “bounce back” in terms of Chinese student demand. Interest is returning, and we are older and wiser when it comes to understanding the nature of the Chinese student market. However, the rebuilding of Chinese student demand will not happen overnight, and will not happen without a concerted effort from UK institutions. We are seeing strong competition from the USA already, the return of Australia is waiting around the corner, and we are also hearing reports of increasing competition from institutions in South East and North Asia as global competition for Chinese students begins to rise. With so many competitors all vying for what is currently still a diminished and cautious Chinese student population, the UK must ensure it is using in-country connections and the latest Chinese student data to create highly tailored and market-specific recruitment strategies.
If the UK can achieve that, Venice is positive about the UK’s potential to dominate student demand moving forward as long as students feel confident about their health, safety, and ability to enter the UK to commence their studies: “It depends on the effect of vaccination. If the pandemic will be well under control and the travel to the UK confirmed, then students’ confidence level will be back. There might be a higher number of students interested in studying in UK, especially with those transferred from other destinations, such as the US and Canada”.
To support UK institution’s in establishing themselves as the top destination country for Chinese students, Venice leaves the following two top tips:
Improving the detail and speed
at which counsellors are updated with information on courses, as well as government and institution policies such as the lockdown, online learning, and flight suspension. Students now are more uncertain and concerned due to the pandemic which is exacerbated when they do not know the latest info. Students who lose confidence in their higher education options are more likely to cancel their study plans or switch destinations. A rapid reaction and smooth communication with agents and students will make it much easier.
Greater promotion of the graduate route for students through clear messaging
and amplification of the experience of Chinese students who use that route. There is a common misconception that Chinese students are not interested in the graduate route due to the fact Chinese students are primarily concerned with enhancing their job prospects in China. However, students do see completing graduate work experience in countries like the UK as advantageous as it is seen favourably by Chinese employers. Therefore, promoting this route to Chinese students would enhance the appeal of the UK as a destination.
We will dig down deeper into the undergraduate and postgraduate subject trends of Chinese students, and share further recommendations from Venice on how to respond to the subject demand of Chinese students considering the UK as a study destination in an exclusive Core Member article later this month.
To discuss how you can action the above steps, or for the latest data and insight into the Chinese student market, reach out to one of our team to discuss what achieving a rebound in the Chinese market mean for your institution.