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UK: Chinese student recruitment weaker than expected

Although Chinese students think British education is attractive, the UK’s performance in Chinese student recruitment is weaker than expected, according to a study by the British Council.

Mobile Chinese students see the UK as an attractive option, but enrolments don't tally with the interest shown.Mobile Chinese students see the UK as an attractive option, but enrolments don't tally with the interest shown. Photo: The PIE News

Respondents who expressed an interest in literature and in history and traditional cultures were also more likely than average to be interested in overseas study

Measuring Our Cultural Dividends, released in October, suggests that interest in overseas culture strongly impacts attitudes towards overseas studying. It also indicates that Chinese students tend to view the UK and British culture favourably.

However, the report found that the UK’s real share of international students were “substantially lower” than expected, following students’ preferences expressed online.

“Visa and work restrictions combined with the global publicity that Brexit has received make the students feel less welcome in the UK”

“In contrast, the number of Chinese students in Australia and Canada is much larger than survey findings or online discussion volume would suggest,” the report concludes.

Canada was recently highlighted in IDP’s annual Buyer Behaviour Survey as a popular study destination for global international students.

The paper says that an interest in culture can kick-start students’ interest in overseas study, giving an advantage to countries that Chinese students find interesting.

“[There] is a clear mismatch between this initial level of interest and actual student flows, with Australia and Canada performing far better in reality than our indicators of perceptions would suggest,” Matt Durnin, report author and head of research (East Asia) for the British Council said.

However, a spokesperson from UCL said the London institution is happy with the levels of Chinese enrolment, which have more than doubled since 2009.

“We are very satisfied with our interest and recruitment from China,” they said.

“When promoting UK education, institutions should try to build on potential students’ positive perceptions”

David Staley, head of global engagement at UVIC told The PIE News that there is work to be done to address the gap between aspirations and applications.

“The report identifies the often aspirational initial interest shown, which doesn’t always manifest into applications to study and by operating in partnership with providers, we are able to work together to continually address this,” he said. 

According to researchers, students who described themselves as interested in overseas culture were more than three times as likely to consider overseas study as those that had a lower level of interest. Students preferred to study in countries whose culture they rated highly.

Visa policy stands out as a negative influence on the UK’s attractiveness for international students from China, according to the paper.

Paul Hoskins, president and founder of Precedent agreed that visas and tightening work restrictions affected the inbound student market.

“The British language and culture will always have a big appeal to students from the whole of South Asia. However, visa and work restrictions combined with the global publicity that Brexit has received make the students feel less welcome in the UK than they do in America and Australia.”

“When it comes to the crunch everyone needs to feel wanted but especially when you’re separated from you family for the first time,” he added.

The study analysed posts on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, to collect data. It found that the UK came second only to the US in the number of discussions about the countries’ cultures. There were over 400,000 posts about US education and around 350,000 posts about the UK.

Students’ favourite overseas destinations were Japan and the US, with the UK coming in third. In previous generations, the US and France had been the top two most popular cultures.

Female students and those living in China’s largest Tier 1 cities such as Beijing and Shanghai had a stronger-than-average affinity towards UK culture. Students in major provincial Tier 2 cities such as Chengdu were also more likely to prefer UK culture than those living in less developed parts of the country.

Respondents who expressed an interest in literature and in history and traditional cultures were also more likely than average to be interested in overseas study.

Staley told The PIE News of one interaction with a student, whose interest in UK culture inspired her choice to study in the UK.

“I recall asking a prospective Chinese student from Weihaiwei why she choose the UK for further study. She smiled and summed it up for me in two words… ‘Harry Potter’,” he said. 

Some negative perceptions respondents have recorded include negative views of UK food, and the belief that the French, Canadian and Australian people were more friendly than Britons or Americans.

The report suggests that by addressing these negative perceptions, the UK’s attractiveness as a study destination could be boosted.

“When promoting UK education, institutions should try to build on potential students’ positive perceptions while challenging impressions in areas where they are less positive,” the study recommends.

Better promotion of post-graduation work options could help to make the UK more attractive, according to the research.

Although Chinese graduates from programs abroad now tend to return to China immediately following graduation, the UK is disadvantaged compared to the clear post-study work options offered by the major competitors.

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