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Do we really understand why Chinese students come to the UK?

  • 2 April 2024
  • By Pippa Ebel
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Pippa Ebel, Yenching Scholar at Peking University, China.

At the end of 2023, UCAS and Pearson issued a report on Chinese students in the UK, which looked into motivations for studying at British higher education institutions (HEIs). Findings revealed the reputation and quality of UK HEIs to be two main factors. Yet, all five options provided to UCAS/Pearson survey respondents were pull factors: UK HEIs’ reputation, quality education, British culture, attractive course options and an easy application process.

My own research conducted this year, including online surveys and 1-1 interviews with Chinese applicants to British universities revealed a more complex and dynamic landscape. There are more pragmatic pull factors at play, as well as meaningful push factors away from both China and UK HEIs’ biggest competitors, US colleges. Rather than contesting data provided in the report, my findings add detail and nuance. At a time when numbers of Chinese applying to UK universities are beginning to slip, understanding and defining the UK’s unique advantages could enable UK HEIs to stay ahead. 

The options provided to participants in UCAS/Pearson’s 2023 research report.

Shorter degree programmes

In comparison to the US, which was previously the preferred destination for Chinese students continuing their education overseas, UK programmes are generally shorter. Masters programmes for example are just one year long and prove particularly popular among Chinese students, seeking to boost their CVs in the shortest space of time at the lowest price. By contrast, domestic programmes in China are typically two to three years long and places at the top institutions are incredibly competitive.

In my online surveys with 60 students across China, rather than providing participants with a list of fixed answers to the question ‘Why did you choose to study in the UK?’ I provided an open question. Whilst students recognised the reputation of British universities, over 20% acknowledged the short duration of courses as the primary attraction. One student wrote “the [study] time is short, you graduate quickly”. Another wrote “the duration is short, you can get practical work experience early”. Erli Kang, who conducted 50 interviews with Chinese international students drew the same conclusion, as 72% of her participants citing short-study time as the primary factor for choosing programmes in the UK (and Hong Kong). 

Cost-effective

The short duration of UK academic programmes brings considerable cost benefits for international students. Taking masters programmes as an example, whilst UK programmes can cost up to £38,000, paying just one year’s worth of fees makes the UK more affordable than the US where programmes are typically $20,000/year. One survey respondent remarked, “it’s cheaper and you get better value for money”. The monthly cost of living in major cities in the US is generally higher than in the UK, particularly across Los Angeles, New York and Boston. Of the respondents I surveyed, 10% cited a scholarship offer as their main reason for choosing a UK university. In the UCAS/Pearson survey, neither time nor cost factors were included. Instead, responses emphasised the quality and reputation of British HEIs. 

Push factors

Besides cost and time pull-factors, push-factors also need to be accounted for to better understand student decision making. 

When I asked participants why they chose the UK, 18% chose the option ‘when I was studying [at school], I worried my grades were not good enough to gain a place at China’s top universities’. For Chinese students, choosing an international pathway is a way out of a highly competitive and stressful domestic education environment in which very few students achieve entry to well-ranked universities. Last year saw a record 12.9m Chinese students sit the national university entrance examination (gaokao), yet an acceptance rate of just 7%. Oxford University by contrast accepts 14% undergraduate applicants and 17% postgraduate. This means a Chinese student achieving average scores at middle school examinations (zhongkao) is effectively already doomed to enter a second- or even third-tier university. They will go on to compete with millions of other Chinese graduates hoping to find employment in a squeezed job market. However, the same student, by switching to an international track providing A-Level or IB courses, is likely to gain admission into one of the top ten or twenty HEIs in the UK.

This ‘push factor’ is extremely relevant in an increasingly competitive job market which saw record levels of unemployment according to official data in summer last year. The option of a postgraduate degree in the UK not only gives them additional qualifications, but also an edge over their peers who stayed at Chinese HEIs. During interviews with Chinese postgraduate students enrolled in UK universities, my findings were clear. “It will definitely increase my employability back home”, a Communications masters student at Sheffield University observed. Another UCL master’s student remarked, “Everyone has advised me [my UK degree] will be really helpful back home”. The “intense competitiveness” of China’s job market, as described by a master’s student at the University of Manchester, is daunting and many are looking for ways to give themselves an edge over their competitors.

Students’ confidence in the value of a postgraduate degree from a top UK university is not misplaced. The Chinese government has provided “special incentives to encourage overseas students to return, such as tax breaks, subsidised rent, or residency permits in the “Hukou” (household registration) system”, according to Keyu Zhai. Access to the hukou is particularly important for students, who upon their return can access the best healthcare, schools and the right to buy homes in China’s most developed cities. According to Kang’s research, 38% of the students she interviewed acknowledged hukou benefits as a major factor. 

Besides push factors away from the Mainland, previously popular student destinations such as the US and Australia saw significant drops in Chinese student numbers, particularly since Covid-19. Whilst a full exploration of push factors away from these countries is beyond the scope of this piece, there are several key themes: perceived discrimination towards Chinese students during Covid-19, less friendly visa policies (particularly in the US under Trump) and the perception of the US as unsafe. Changes to the political and social environment in the US and Australia – the UK’s main education rivals – will have meaningful implications for application numbers to UK HEIs, and are important when forecasting Chinese student numbers in coming years. UK HEIs should reflect on and lean into the factors pushing Chinese students away from their Western rivals if they are to continue to benefit from high enrollment numbers.

Conclusion

The pull and push factors for Chinese students choosing UK universities are complex. It may be tempting to focus on the quality and reputation of UK universities, but this doesn’t capture the full picture and runs the risk of an over-confident or even apathetic attitude to student enrolment. Institutions looking to sustain or increase enrolment from Chinese students should develop a wider strategy which accounts for each of the push- and pull-factors above. 

Some of these factors, including those pushing students away from studying in mainland China, are outside of the control of the UK, but many are not. As the purse strings of China’s middle class tighten and uncertainty grows around the value of an international education, HEIs should consider the impact of further fee rises. Though UK HEIs may want to diversify their international student pool to reduce reliance on Chinese students, this should happen gradually and sustainably. Nationally, changes to the UK’s graduate visa route could make the UK educational offer less attractive. Rhetoric targeting international students could also undermine the UK’s reputation as a tolerant and safe place to study. As elections approach, this is particularly important to bear in mind, as Chinese students and parents alike will be looking out for shifts in sentiment. 

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