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Matt Durnin, British Council, China

Matt Durnin is global head of Insights and Consultancy at the British Council. Based in China, his team is responsible for keeping the pulse of student attitudes and helping institutions strategise. He spoke to The PIE about student sentiment in China regarding international education as well as the broader concerns the market is facing.


"Chinese students were relatively less likely to tell us they had strong intentions to cancel or delay their studies"

The PIE: Can you tell me more about your role at the British Council?

MD: I lead our global research and consultancy services for UK education institutions. My team and I are based in Beijing because of China and East Asia’s importance to the UK education sector, but we work around the world to support student recruitment, partnerships and strategy in international education. 

“Chinese students haven’t shown strong intentions to cancel”

The PIE: What took you to China in the first place?

MD: I actually came to China as part of a study tour during my master’s program. I got a partial scholarship for a six-week trip and basically decided not to buy a return ticket.

I found a job that was a great fit for my background at the time, and I worked for six years on China’s security issues. I edited a policy journal that covered traditional non-security issues and worked on projects related to space security and nuclear disarmament dialogues.

And somehow from that, I ended up in consulting and eventually, education consulting. So let’s just say my path to the world of international education has been circuitous.

The PIE: What is student sentiment in China regarding international education currently like?

Matt Durnin: We still see strong interest in overseas study, despite all the complications the world has encountered in 2020.

In our surveys, Chinese students haven’t shown strong intentions to cancel, but a lot are sitting on the fence as to whether to keep or cancel their plans – and that seems to come down to concerns about health and personal safety primarily.

There are geopolitical tensions brewing at the moment, but past precedents suggest that these won’t have a big influence on study decisions. But could the geopolitics get even nastier than anything we’ve seen before? Well, perhaps.

The PIE: It feels like it’s going that way.

MD: Hard to say. I’ve worked in China for a little over 13 years, and there have been some notable low points in geopolitics during that time, particularly in Sino-American relations, but none of them have really influenced student mobility.

So precedent suggests that the current tensions won’t sway student decision-making much. Having said that, precedents haven’t held up terribly well in 2020 so far.

In any case, the more important thing to keep an eye on is how the fundamental drivers of demand for overseas study are changing in China.

The PIE: Have you any forcast for the future of Chinese student mobility?

MD: We’ve put a lot of work into refining a forecast for China’s outbound mobility and have made some predictions about when we might reach the apex. Our latest version predicted that we’d reach the peak in the next year or two.

“There is increasing scepticism about the inherent value of overseas study”

Forecasts are imperfect, but what we can say is that the fundamentals that are driving outbound study – growth in household incomes, a lack of quality HE places domestically and the demographic dividend – all those forces are abating.

The PIE:  Does that mean that outbound study will decrease in step with those variables?

MD: Not necessarily, because there may be lag effects that aren’t easy to model. Chinese parents often make plans for their children’s studies at a very young age, and so we might see the outbound trend persist well after the fundamental drivers weaken.

The PIE: Is employability still a concern for returning Chinese students?

MD: Employability problems for Chinese students [who have studied abroad] come up cyclically in the media. In Chinese returnees from abroad are often called ‘sea turtles’, and that’s generally had a positive connotation since reform and opening.

But in more recent years we’ve seen returnees also referred to as ‘seaweed’, implying that they are not terribly useful in the home job market.

This isn’t necessarily a widely held opinion, but it does show that there is increasing scepticism about the inherent value of overseas study. I do expect Chinese students to pay more considerable attention to outcomes and employability going forward.

The PIE: Are you looking at a global landscape, or is it always with a view of the UK market?

MD: Within the British Council, we only work on behalf of the UK institutions, but because of how competitive international education is, and is becoming, we track what’s happening in the other major study destinations very closely as well.

The PIE: Have you seen the digital marketing space get a lot more competitive? 

MD: It’s one of the most complex digital marketing spaces that I’ve come across anywhere in the world. The social media landscape is highly fragmented and changes rapidly.

 It’s a challenge to stay on top of. You need someone focusing full-time just on understanding what’s working and how user engagement is changing. To do it well, I think you either need someone on the ground or to have trusted partners who can do that work for you.

The PIE: And the education agency scene, there’s some really big players and lots of small and medium-sized players. Have you seen that change a lot? 

MD: There seemed to be a gradual shift towards direct applications a few years ago that I think many agents saw as a threat, but I don’t think the landscape has drastically shifted since.

If we do see a large downturn in outbound mobility over the next two years, we’ll likely see a consolidation in the agent space as some are forced out by financial pressures. But it’s too soon to say how this is going to play out.

The PIE: What is the significant learning out of your recent student sentiment data?

MD: I should first say that I tend to be somewhat sceptical of survey data, but I was pleasantly surprised at how successful our data collection was in China.

I had hoped to get a couple of thousand responses, but, because of the broader China team’s hard work on social media, we managed over 10,000 responses within a couple of days. Almost all respondents were students in the UK pipeline, so it was a very powerful dataset for our purposes.

“We’ll likely see a consolidation in the agent space”

In terms of findings, it’s worth noting that, in comparison with the rest of East Asia, Chinese students were relatively less likely to tell us they had strong intentions to cancel or delay their studies this year. But a large portion (close to 40%) weren’t leaning one way or the other. They’re just waiting to see what happens.

We’ve run the survey twice – in late March and then in late April – and are now distributing a third round that will be published in late August.

The PIE: Were there noticeable differences between the surveys?

MD: What was notable in the first two rounds was that uncertainty about study plans and concerns about the health and personal safety did not soften at all. The results were almost identical.

My hope is that clarifications that UK universities and the government have provided over the past month have given more students the confidence to proceed with their plans. We’ll know soon.

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