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Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
20th Dec 2023

What matters most to Chinese students considering studying in the UK?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • A major new study examines Chinese students’ motivations for choosing the UK as a study destination and their experience once enrolled in the UK
  • A key insight is that Chinese students are much more interested in creative arts and design programmes than in the past
  • The research highlights that Chinese students’ own research is the main driver of their study abroad choices, and parents’ opinions are influential as well
  • Chinese students are highly interested in student reviews when researching, underlining once again the importance of peer-to-peer marketing

A new report from UCAS/Pearson, Global insights: What are the experiences of Chinese students in the UK?, provides valuable insights for UK educators considering how to gain competitive advantage in China. China is the largest source of undergraduate (UG) international students for the UK, and one that is even more important going into 2024 given new government policies that may dampen student mobility from non-EU countries.

Recent data from UCAS shows a -1% y-o-y decline in the number of Chinese applying for undergraduate programmes in the UK, the first reduction since 2013, and a -6% decline in the number of acceptances (the first decline since 2015). These falloffs are not nearly as severe as seen for other countries – including India and Nigeria – but they are noteworthy.

The UCAS/Pearson study drew on the following to shed light on the Chinese student experience in the UK:

  • “Data from the more than 33,000 Chinese UG applicants making 140,000 applications to UK universities and colleges, with survey insights from almost 1,600 UG Chinese applicants and around 200 existing UG Chinese higher education (HE) students;
  • Insights gained through a collaboration with the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (BOSSA) on ‘trends in appetite for UK study across China.’”

A key market

Chinese students account for a quarter of all UG international acceptances via UCAS, and they are accepted at a higher rate than other international students, not least because of their English proficiency scores. In 2021, according to the British Council, Chinese students in the UK spent £5.4 billion on tuition and other expenses.

Chinese demand for UK education is expected to keep growing (in contrast to demand for other leading destinations), but there is some uncertainty around this given:

  • A volatile global economy and political climate;
  • Increased competition, including from regional players;
  • Heightened vigilance on the part of Chinese parents worried about their children’s safety.

Uncertainty aside, if Chinese students are going to study abroad, all signs indicate that the UK is their preferred destination. For example, the report notes that:

  • The UK’s popularity as a study destination increased by 148% in 2022 compared with the previous year according to search data, driven by interest from students from Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Shandon;
  • Chinese students are drawn by the UK’s reputation for excellence of education – 62% choose it for this reason;
  • Nine in ten current Chinese students would recommend the UK and 92% say their expectations have been met or exceeded.
Top reasons for Chinese students to choose the UK as a study destination. Source: UCAS

Chinese undergraduate students in UK universities also represent an excellent recruitment pool for graduate programmes: “Almost three in four Chinese students enrolled in a UK UG degree
are also considering a postgraduate (PG) degree in the UK.”

A competitive market

Report data also show that almost two-thirds (63%) of Chinese students consider multiple destinations alongside their own country and the UK. The top alternates are the US (40%), Canada (39%), and Australia (27%). As per our reporting earlier in the year, Asian destinations have also become attractive to Chinese students.

Widening the band of possibility

International students have consistently and historically been attracted to fields such as business and administration and engineering when they consider study abroad, and Chinese students are no exception. However, one of the most interesting findings of the report is that while business accounted for 43% of acceptances in 2013, this fell to 26% in 2023. At the same time, acceptances for creative arts and design programmes have almost tripled in that time frame, from 4% to 11%.

Of the findings, Sander Kristel, UCAS Chief Executive (Interim), said:

“The UK has a flourishing creative arts sector with world-leading TV and film, fashion, design and music industries so it’s encouraging to see growing numbers of Chinese students motivated to study in the UK due to the value of our vibrant arts and culture. This presents a significant opportunity for universities and colleges to promote the unique offering of our creative courses.”

What influences Chinese students’ choices?

More than 6 in 10 (61%) Chinese students said that their own research was the top reason they chose to study in the UK and 64% said that their own research also informed which institution they decided to apply to. That said, parents play an important role, with 55% of students saying parents influenced their decision to study in the UK and 42% saying that parents influenced their choice of institution. Parents are also the main funders; 91% said that parents were financing their education.

Top influences for Chinese students in their study abroad decision-making. Source: UCAS

When it comes to marketing, the survey underlines how influential the opinions of other students are. More than 8 in 10 (83%) ranked student reviews as “extremely important” or “important,” and 57% said that poor reviews are impactful enough that they drop a college or university from consideration. University prospectuses are also key to students’ decision-making (82%) and 79% said they carefully consider emails from institutions.

Reaching out early to Chinese students and families matters. UCAS notes that Chinese students begin researching study abroad earlier than other international students and found that “two in five Chinese students (39%) first think about choosing the UK as their study destination as early as secondary school, with a further two in five (41%) having this reflection in late secondary school.”

Reflections on the findings

Sander Kristel, UCAS Chief Executive (Interim), said:

“I’m delighted that our new report offers UCAS’ first global insight focused on the experience of Chinese undergraduate students in the UK. Our findings show that students from China hold our universities and colleges in high regard with the majority viewing the UK as a positive, or very positive, place to study due to its world-class reputation and quality of education.

However, our report emphasises that sustained growth in the Chinese market is not guaranteed – with global economic uncertainty and competition the backdrop of an increasingly dynamic landscape. In this context, the sector must collectively work together to remain competitive in this global market but do so in a manner that promotes sustainability and diversity, with a balanced distribution of Chinese students, to help maintain the UK’s position as one of the most attractive study destinations on the international stage.”

For additional background, please see:

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