Skip to main content

Appearances can be deceiving

Although the UK remains the top destination for Chinese students, the landscape is shifting, and UK institutions need to remain vigilant when trying to either retain or establish new relationships with this market. The post-pandemic bounce back from China has not been as robust as other markets. Despite universities reaching volume targets from this region, we believe that this does not necessarily reflect the true reality on the ground. Although universities with high volumes of Chinese students may be seeing an increase in applications, we do not believe this results in a similar level of enrolments, primarily because the same number of students are simply making more applications. 

According to our IDP colleagues in China and counsellors, who work closely to support students on the ground, there is increased anxiety and uncertainty among students when applying to the UK. In part, this is due to students concerns around UK universities being perceived to have quotas or limitations on the number of Chinese students they will accept. They are also concerned about the strict entry requirements and the necessary grade point average (GPA) needed. As a result, students have developed the mindset that, to successfully secure an offer with at least one university, they must apply to multiple universities; in some cases, applying for multiple courses within the same university. One prospective student might generate ten potential offers, only able to accept one.  

Hence, the current model is not sustainable, nor does it serve the interest of students or universities. It seems quotas are counterproductive and distort the real number of applications which convert into enrolments, not to mention cause unnecessary anxiety for applicants which fuels over-subscription. IDP China, believe that enrolments from this valuable market could decrease annually if the current status quo is not addressed and a new model adopted. 

According to Venice Yun, Destination Director, IDP China:  

“China is a huge, while complicated market which is worth long-term investment. Considering Chinese students usually prepare overseas study 2–3 years in advance, the pipeline of recruitment will be built at least two years ahead of the actual enrolment season. Therefore, keeping a consistent market message is crucial for institutions to maintain future students’ interest. A continuous China strategy is also essential for a sustainable agent partnership.”    

Institutions need to take a long-term view when looking at strategies in managing supply and demand issues with China and avoid falling into the trap of short-termism. Just as universities attempt to rebalance and diversify their student cohorts, Chinese students are also diversifying their options. Prolonged periods of lockdown have changed the way some Chinese students envisage higher education and are no longer just looking to the Global North as their ‘go to’ destinations. Lured by reputable institutions, great facilities and better value for money, this market is beginning to choose destinations closer to home such as Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Japan. Post-pandemic, these destinations are becoming more attractive for their regional proximity, affordability, perceptions of safety and how welcoming they are to Chinese students.  

China is also, now, the largest global hub for transnational education (TNE), meaning some students no longer need to travel abroad to acquire an international qualification. This option has increased in popularity partly due to Covid and concerns around health and well-being. According to our Emerging Futures 2 data set, this cohort of students are also worried about student welfare in the UK, rating us as 6.4/10, in contrast to Indian students who rate the UK as 8.2/10 for student welfare. When asked: “What is your perception of each country on the welfare of international students?” The UK performed better than other top destinations; however, the findings illustrate the continued concerns felt by this market.  

Furthermore, when asked: “How interested are you in different study modes?” only 60% of Chinese students were “very interested” in on-campus study in person overseas, compared to the average of 84% from other source markets. This cohort are much more open to blended learning, with 37% saying they were “very interested” in fully online study, in contrast to only 18% from other source markets.

Nicola Sewell22 January 2023