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Dandan Cheng, Sinorbis

Dandan Cheng is COO of China-based digital marketing platform Sinorbis. She spoke to The PIE about plans to expand across Asia, demand for international opportunities among Chinese students and why the UK is becoming increasingly popular as a study destination.


Long term, parents want their kids to have a better sense of international environment and open their horizons to the international world beyond China

The PIE: How did you get involved with Sinorbis?

Dandan Cheng: I co-founded Sinorbis together with Nicholas Chu, witnessing a great opportunity to help a wide range of international companies come into China by a digital approach, rather than having to set up a local entity through a very lengthy process.

I used to be in charge of China’s Ebay business and was also in charge of a global hotel brand based in Australia. I have always have been a veteran of the cross-border economy.

After graduating from Fudan University, the top university in China, I actually started to immediately work with international business, looking at either helping international businesses come into China or helping the local supply from China sell to the rest of the world.

The PIE: How has the demand among Chinese students for study abroad changed during the past years, given Covid-19 and various geopolitical tensions?

DC: So this is a very interesting topic, because the world is looking at how the China market is evolving with the impact from Covid and international relationship between China and the rest of the world. And when it comes to overseas international study, I think we need to look at it in multiple ways.

First of all, demand itself is still very strong even with this international politics tension and the impact of Covid. [Research suggests] only 9% of prospective Chinese students who originally planned to do international study temporarily changed or dropped their plans. This means actually that 91% stayed with the same plan, or developed a back-pocket plan just in case something changed their overseas study plans.

Covid definitely has changed the popular destinations of Chinese students for overseas studies. Originally  the US definitely was the number one, with the quality of education, as well as even famous Hollywood films having some legacy impact.

“The popularity of the US has definitely decreased over the last few years”

But on the other side, the cost, the international relationship and also the attitude to take good proactive actions towards Covid, as well as how friendly media in China sees the destination country towards Chinese people, all these are taking effect. And the popularity of the US has definitely decreased over the last few years. Even for the last year alone, the preference percentage among prospective students dropped by 5 percentage points and since 2020, the UK has overtaken as the number one popular.

Another small factor [affecting students’ choices] is the proximity of destination countries to China. Over the last two years, the popularity of Asian countries like Singapore and Japan have increased a bit as well.

The PIE: How has Australia been affected?

DC: Australia got the biggest hit, I have to say. A couple of years ago, Australia was almost about to overtake the UK as the second most popular destination. Australia put a lot of efforts trying to promote Australian higher education institutions in the China market, leveraging all different type of marketing and branding in order to get people’s attention here.

But unfortunately, when it was about to take over UK as the second most popular destination, there was Covid. The international border was closed, and then there was the international relationship kicking in because a lot of negative voices [to Australia] were exposed here.

It caused some panic from students and parents, and they they switched. And the UK is definitely the biggest winner of that.

The PIE: How effective have transnational education opportunities, and study hubs been for international students during the pandemic?

DC: There are some students who went to local study hubs, like those offered by the Australian National University in Shanghai. At least students could get some good opportunities to be together and to have a better sense of belonging rather than just taking courses remote, alone. That was a good opportunity to still be able to tap into the Chinese students here.

But on the other side, you should never underestimate how Chinese people see international education as a once in a lifetime critical opportunity.

“Never underestimate how Chinese people see international education as a once in a lifetime critical opportunity”

Anecdotal stories offer a narrative story that also helps with more colour on how people think. So when the US border was closed and there were no direct flights from China, students who got admission from favourable US universities [still] travelled with lots of stop overs in South Africa or Europe etc. They took such a big trouble just in order to [travel].

My classmates who I graduated with from the computer science major from Fudan University are now planning which route [is best] for their kids, whether that is the national Gaokao exam, whether they will study abroad. Actually a majority of my classmates plan to still send their kids overseas.

Even though the likelihood for their kids to pass the national exam is high, people still value the time and don’t want their kids to just put all their time into academic preparation just for exams. Long term, parents are serious about the education of their kids, and they want their kids to have a better sense of international environment and open their horizons to the international world beyond China.

The PIE: China is investing quite a lot in its own education system. Is that causing parents to rethink things?

DC: China has consistently invested in generating more, setting up more higher education infrastructure. But right now, the availability of the higher education is still significantly under the amount of the needs that people have.

Definitely a lot of top tier students will still go for the national exam and will be enrolled into Tsinghua, Beijing University, Fudan, or Zhejiang University, but on the other side, a group of people, particularly for those who have been exposed to the international culture, got degrees from overseas schools.

Getting into those top Chinese universities requires a lot of time. They can otherwise invest that time in to learning other things, increasing competency, capability in other areas.

The PIE: What are Sinorbis’s plans for the next couple of years?

DC: We are looking at to not just limiting ourselves to connecting international schools to China market, but to very substantial opportunities across the entire Asia region. There’s no reason, with our competency and our expertise and knowledge, to limit us just to helping international institutions come into China market without being able to expand it further into the Asia market.

The PIE: What are the key markets in Asia that you will expand into?

DC: We see the markets such as India or Malaysia as markets that are a good fit to us because historically the people there see education as very important to them, but educational availability is also limited for the local residents there.

Meanwhile, we are also looking to definitely to increase our exposure more internationally. Currently we have many very successful clients from UK, or Europe, like Finland, and North America. I think the broader market will definitely stay in North America and in the European countries.

“Generation Z is becoming more and more competent in researching by themselves”

Higher education universities have in the past worked with a lot of study agencies, which is good because it doesn’t require them to understand the deeper requirement and a situation of the customers that they target. But on the other side, this is also missing opportunities.

Generation Z is becoming more and more competent in researching by themselves, which gives universities the direct opportunity to be able to increase their voices. I think being able to have those higher education institutions take a more active steps or initiatives to know the audience and have their voices directly [amplified] in the market is also meaningful. The thing is, as long as there is still that big gap between the supply and the demand, it’s going to be the great opportunity.

They need to proactively promote and let people know because for Chinese people, right now, we are faced with a lot of choices from schools in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, US. A lot of international schools are trying to get the share from Chinese students, but I think schools also need to change their mindset as well.

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