The PIE: Can you tell us about Wiseway and EWIE?
Wang Wei: EWIE international education company originating from Wiseway in 2008 – Wiseway was founded in 1999, so we have been in operation for almost 22 years. We have 15 offices in China, and we’ve been recruiting primarily for UK, US and a few other English-speaking countries. Of course, we deal with a broader number of destinations for Chinese students in non-English-speaking countries in Europe and Asia including Singapore and Thailand – in total we’re dealing with 15 countries for recruitment. In that first 10 years with Wiseway, we’d been mostly dealing with recruitment for the mass market.
In 2008, we thought that our client base should not only be at individual students and parents, but also education institutions. Primarily that means universities and colleges, of course, that includes other training centres in the schools as well.
We started with an international foundation course, which now runs in 10 main Chinese universities with the recruitment of around 800 to 1,000 students roughly each year. While we are an institution for international education and service, covering educational research and educational programs and university partnerships in China, we offer services directly for students and the universities, from longer degree programs to shorter semester level or even two week study programs.
The PIE: What’s the general feeling around outbound student travel at the moment?
WW: It’s not promising primarily for two reasons. Covid is discouraging people from travelling, especially when in the West the social attitude towards it is more relaxed than it is here in China. I think a lot of students and parents are worried about getting infected overseas.
The other reason, I think is the international relationships with the US and Australia. There’s been a political conflict between China and Australia for a few years, and there’s a lot of negative publicity in China about selling Australia as a destination, and it is obviously getting a lot of support from the Chinese government and the media. Ever since Trump, and now the Biden administration, the anti-China attitude which is hindering the US also has created some hurdles for Chinese students to believe that the US is a very friendly destination, even though it is still one of the top destinations for many, many Chinese students and parents.
“British universities also have a lot of joint programs in China in terms of two plus two or three plus one programs”
I think a more fundamental reason is that China is becoming increasingly strong economically, and in the huge investments in universities in terms of facilities and capacity. Some people thought that studying in China instead of going overseas is a better alternative, so I don’t think the enthusiasm is as strong as it used to be.
In 2022, however, there will probably will be a positive jump in terms of the number of overseas students, as a lot of students have been waiting, doing online classes in China instead of travelling. For medium long term, the participation of students in international programs, which frankly stood at around 600,000-700,000 annually recently, will probably still increase – but maybe not so much for degree study, but shorter periods of study overseas. That’s been encouraged mostly by the Chinese government, funded by the universities, as well as some students and parents probably opting to study in China instead of going overseas to take a full four-year undergraduate degree study.
The PIE: Where do you find most students want to go?
WW: Definitely the UK is number one at the moment, having been second to the US a few years ago. The UK benefitted due to the issues around difficult relations with the US, but what also obviously contributed to it is the fact the UK is seen as a welcoming country for international students. And of course, the UK also has great universities across a variety of courses as well.
The US is still one of the top destinations for Chinese students, because the US is very strong for university education, both in terms of the numbers of institutions and the quality and fame of them, which is very important in attracting top students. But one thing I would add is that recent cases of Chinese students being shot or murdered in the US, has a pretty negative image on US education; especially recently, there was the case of a masters student being shot and killed in Chicago near the university.
Australia is also still a little bit difficult – both because of the logistical travel and visa difficulties, and also more importantly, the attitude of the Chinese government in many ways and attitudes shared on Chinese social media.
“There are increasing numbers still coming in [to China] from neighbouring countries in Asia, in the central region”
Going back to the UK, British universities also have a lot of joint programs in China in terms of two plus two or three plus one programs. Because of those programs, a lot of students will end up studying a masters program or even a PhD in the UK, which also contributed to its popularity in China.
The PIE: What subjects are gaining the most traction among students?
WW: The main subject area for most Chinese students – maybe two thirds of the students – is business. The one we’ve seen grow in recent years is art and design-related subjects including media – maybe 10-15% of the cohort would be in art programs, music, the performing arts as well, but science and engineering is still one of the main interests for a lot of Chinese students, especially those programs related to management.
My guess is maybe around 20-25% of all students are interested in science and engineering related subjects. There is much less interest for liberal arts-related courses or history.
The PIE: What has been the impact of Covid on student looking towards post-study life?
WW: I think the economy in China is not currently very healthy and the job market for young graduates is increasingly competitive. Students coming back from study overseas used to go straight to IT and business industries, [but] are having difficulties at the moment.
But of course, most of the students go to the financial and banking industries, which are still very hot for students. Ultimately, students used to go to other businesses as well. The job difficulties are not just due to Covid, but it’s also about social and political policy change here in China, which has impacted the economy.
The PIE: What is the market looking like for inbound study?
WW: Around 2019, there was some negative media in China regarding international students getting preferential treatment by Chinese universities, which was widespread. So ever since then, high quality control has been the theme of all inbound study-in-China programs. Before then it was mainly the quantity that mattered – people were focused on the numbers of students.
Having said that, the current pandemic stopped students from coming, and they wouldn’t be able to get a visa to come to China at the moment, so it’s been bad business for most Chinese universities. A lot of them are very worried about these restrictions, but longer term, I would say that the numbers will slowly be on the increase. There are increasing numbers still coming in from neighbouring countries in Asia, in the central region. With the media rhetoric and the mood in the West, I guess it’s difficult for Western students to study Chinese and to come to study in China.
Chinese universities also charge very low tuition for international students, which has stood around maybe $5,000, so there is a very difficult scenario for recruitment agencies to survive on a 10% commission basis, given the very high running costs at the moment in China.
There is a lack of successful business models for recruitment of the students at the moment, but not many people are looking into that. We are still interested in exploring ways to collaborate with Chinese universities to recruit, but it would probably take a little bit of time to find the right model.