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What’s happening in China – and why the UK can’t afford to take its eye off the ball

Today, UCAS in partnership with Pearson, releases our latest report – ‘Global Insights: what are the experiences of Chinese students in the UK?’

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"Whilst business continues to dominate, creative arts subjects have risen in the popularity ranks"

The significance of the Chinese market cannot be overstated for the higher education sector. China is the biggest undergraduate international market for UK HE and the third biggest market overall, ahead of Wales and Northern Ireland. UCAS projects, based on data up to 2022 cycle, that Chinese undergraduate demand to UK HE will continue to grow by the end of the decade, exceeding 50,000 applicants (from the c.33K we see today) by 2030, overtaking Scotland to become the second biggest market.

Sustained growth, however, is not guaranteed. The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the landscape of international student mobility. Increasing global competition and impact on economies in the backdrop of a dynamic global market means that the sector must collectively work together to continue actively promoting the UK as welcoming study destination.

There is a need for a paradigm shift – international students must no longer be viewed as one homogenous group. With that intent, this report delivers on UCAS’s commitment to grow nation- specific intelligence as to the different values, motivations, and interests held within the UK’s key markets, including China.

Getting under the skin of Chinese recruitment

So, what have we learned in our research on the experience of Chinese international undergraduate applicants and students? In brief, undergraduate recruitment from China is unevenly distributed across the sector.

Firstly, we see regional hot and cold spots, both from where in China students come from, and where they chose to study in the UK. The majority of Chinese undergraduate applicants come from urban and wealthy areas of China, with seven in ten applicants coming from the top ten most populous provinces, plus the four municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing. Meanwhile, London-based HE providers recruit more than one third (35%) of all Chinese acceptances.

Similarly, 76% of Chinese undergraduate acceptances are to higher tariff providers*. 66 UK HE providers recruit less than 1% of their UCAS intake from China, 91% of which are medium or lower tariff providers, and 206 don’t accept any students from China through UCAS. Equally, whilst business continues to dominate, creative arts subjects have risen in the popularity ranks. Although there are several subjects, many for obvious reasons, with no UCAS acceptances from China, such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary studies, agricultural sciences.

Here we see that there is an opportunity for providers to pursue diversification strategies into new regions, providers, and especially subject choices, where Chinese recruitment is minimal (if not non- existent), ensuring a more balanced distribution and greater sustainability. Though UCAS data does not reflect every Chinese UG applicant, it does serve as the biggest single channel to UK HE.

Experiences are living up to expectations, but we must strive to avoid complacency

Reassuringly, we found that nine in 10 Chinese students would recommend the UK as a study destination, and for 92%, their expectations of course quality have been met or exceeded. This is a testament to the resilience of UK HE that continues to set and deliver a high standard of education despite the challenges it has faced in the past few years.

However, these experiences are not without challenges. Respondents highlight the need for adjustments in transitioning to a new country and navigating a new way of living and learning, that too in a different language. While experiences are positive for the majority, there is still scope for improvement. For our part, UCAS is committed to improving and localising its information, advice, and guidance so Chinese students are aware of opportunities and resources available at their disposal, engaging with them on channels they use more locally, such as WeChat.

It’s all about the outcomes

As the report elaborates, employability is a key motivator for Chinese UG students making such a significant financial investment in studying abroad, and job prospects after graduation are being prioritised. The majority of surveyed Chinese students are considering a postgraduate (PG) degree in the UK after graduation, and 43% are also considering finding a job in the UK. There is further potential in supporting Chinese students in progressing from a UG degree onto a PG degree or employment, and in improving the local and international employability skills needs within course content.

For the UK to maintain its position as a popular study destination for Chinese students, it is becoming increasingly important to demonstrate the outcomes in knowledge and skills international students can expect to achieve through international HE study. As such, the expansion of international graduate outcome data collection by HESA – both for those who remain in the UK and return overseas – can plus this gap.

Remaining competitive will be key, and as will be incentives

Globally, UK HE is still an attractive proposition, with 10% global market share of international students. However, this has reduced since the turn of the millennium. As borders have opened following the pandemic, we have seen an increasingly competitive landscape develop. Although sensitivity around net migration figures must be acknowledged, if creating a more sustainable and diverse Chinese student base is a sector priority, the role of the UK’s graduate visa route within this should be considered as part of the Migration Advisory Committee review, which is happening to prevent its misuse.

The future is (cautiously) positive but success is far from guaranteed

As demonstrated by 2022 search data from our partners The Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (BOSSA), individuals in China engaging with content about UK study have more than doubled (148%). While search data by BOSSA and UCAS projections represent potentially positive trends in demand from Chinese students, the three disruptors of global competition, geopolitics and government policy loom large as potential, limiting factors. With that, the post pandemic recovery of global and domestic economies and changing domestic preferences in China will likely continue to impact.

Emerging from a pandemic ‘bubble’ as the UK remained open and other destinations closed, the UK HE now finds itself at a crossroads. There is a need to strengthen our competitive edge in the international arena, which, as this research shows, lies in the continued reputation and quality of education and the employability and prospects of our graduates. However, if the sector doesn’t adapt and evolve, there is a risk of losing our market share to other countries.

The International Education Strategy has been key in guiding the UK through pandemic disruption with a common vision and goal for the UK sector for international higher education. It is UCAS’s view that the next iteration of the IES must be built around sustainable, trusted, and high-quality growth, bringing these recommendations under one umbrella, ensuring the UK remains both a competitive and attractive proposition.

Read the full report here: Global insights: What are the experiences of Chinese students in the UK?

* UCAS Tariff points translate student qualifications and grades into a numerical value. This grouping of high, medium and lower tariff providers is based on the average levels of attainment of their UK 18-year-old accepted applicants (summarised through UCAS tariff points) in recent cycles.

About the author: Chris Kirk is director of UCAS International.

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