In a PIE webinar centred around successful brand building in China, delegates heard from panellists in the UK, Australia and China to learn more about what international students are thinking about their future study plans, and what effective engagement within the Chinese market looks like.
“It’s not just that the younger generation [in China], everyone has embraced digital”
Nicolas Chu, CEO of software as a service company Sinorbis, said that as a result of the Covid-19 crisis more and more institutions are realising that it is crucial to engage prospective Chinese students via digital channels, but that there can be lack of understanding about how to do so successfully.
“This is because having a website that is visible in China is very complicated due to the great firewall, and you don’t have Facebook, you don’t have Google – you have to go through different channels such as WeChat and Weibo.”
He added that simply having a Chinese version of a website is not enough: “A university on the East Coast in the US was telling me recently, ‘we used to have a Chinese version of our website and we decided to stop because no one was visiting it’.
“But looking at the data, I realised the main reason was that it was taking four minutes to load in China.
“And it’s not just that the younger generation [in China], everyone has embraced digital, you do everything through mobile there and the technology changes incredibly fast,” Chu added.
He explained that while it depends on a university’s overall recruitment strategy, having representation in China is an essential consideration for those looking to boost their Chinese student numbers.
“If you don’t have representation on the ground, I think it is important to have people who speak Chinese to engage not only with the students but with the parents who are big influences in the decision-making process,” Chu added.
For the University of Portsmouth in the UK which has a representative team in Shanghai that works with a network of agents, having that local presence has been key to strategising, explained Bobby Mehta, director of UoP Global.
“Being able to provide local support in the local language and in the local timezone has really been key,” said Mehta.
“The team can provide us with information and feedback about what is happing, they’re having that local engagement, and they’re using all the correct social media channels.”
However, added Mehta, “we weren’t necessarily able to support them to do that from the UK, so we work with external agencies to help us to do that”.
Mehta added that sometimes an institution doesn’t need the benefit of having a Mandarin speaker on the ground: “Sometimes if you have a good agency network, if you have good relationships with companies like [Sinorbis] you can actually manage to do things completely remotely.”
Chu added that Sinorbis can help partner institutions develop a substantial social media presence in China.
“I would say that 25% of our clients will do everything by themselves because they have teams on the ground.
“Half of our clients will ask us to set up things such as WeChat offshore accounts and websites, and then they would take over and manage, and 25% will give everything over to us.”
As a growing number of global institutions fight for a slice of the Chinese student market, Matt Durnin global head of Insights and Consultancy at the British Council, said the “black swan event” that we are currently experiencing due to Covid-19 might accelerate change in China’s outbound mobility.
“We’ve seen this repeated double-digit annual growth, and eventually, we have to hit the ceiling,” he explained.
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Durnin added that while there has been a relatively low intention on the part of Chinese students to cancel study abroad: “what we do see in China is a very large number of students sitting on the fence – around 39%”, he explained.
For those institutions looking to break into the Chinese market, Mehta said he believes there are lots of opportunities for any level of education in China.
“ It’s not an easy landscape to navigate and it doesn’t always provide the returns”
“What I would say is you need to identify the right partners in China to work with because you probably wouldn’t be able to do it as a single entity from the UK,” he added.
“It’s not an easy landscape to navigate, and it doesn’t always provide the returns – just tread carefully.”
But first and foremost an institution needs to have its foundations right, noted Chu. “And in the digital space, that would be having something that works and something that is visible in China.”