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Why Chinese international student demand is shifting to the UK

October 13, 2020 |   Ada Wang

Looking at the UK’s recent university application numbers, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that we are in the middle of a global pandemic. While many had predicted and feared that application numbers would plummet, international student applications to UK universities have in fact grown by 9% since the previous year, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

A lot of this is being driven by Chinese international students – according to UCAS numbers, applications from Chinese students rose by an impressive 23% in the same timeframe, from 19,760 to 24,430.

This is great news for UK universities – but applications don’t necessarily lead to enrolments.

Jazreel Goh, who leads the British Council’s East Asia Team in Beijing, says many students are unsure about whether to take up their place next year or defer, with coronavirus being their biggest concern.

“We won’t know the actual numbers probably until later in the autumn,” Goh told CGTN in late August. “At the moment, looking at the feedback we’re getting from agents and students, the demand is still there, the desire is still there … but it may be that students at least for this intake may consider deferring until January or they might consider online learning.”

And, possibly, it could be worse, he suggested: “Just because people are still saying they want to come doesn’t mean they will come.”

“There’s still a good few weeks until the university term starts and they need to get here on the aeroplanes; their families need to know they’ll be safe when they get here and, you know, if there was for example a second wave of the pandemic, then I think all bets would be off.”

So what’s drawing these students to the UK, and how can UK universities capitalise on this growing desire and shore up enrolment numbers – particularly in the face of escalating COVID-19 numbers?

Why Chinese international students want to study in the UK

Excellent Reputation

UK universities continue to have an excellent reputation internationally, with 7 universities ranked in the top 50, based on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. This is a huge drawcard for Chinese international students, to whom a high-quality education is of utmost importance. According to the Kai Tak Study Abroad survey, a significant number of Chinese master’s students said the “quality of education” (60%) and “promotion to prestigious schools” (42%) were the main reasons they had chosen the UK as a study destination.

Shorter degrees

Another attractive feature of education in the UK is the degrees are shorter – it takes 3 years to complete an undergraduate degree in the UK, compared to 4 years in the US. Similarly, it takes 1 year to complete a Masters by coursework and 1.5 to 2 years to complete a Masters by thesis in the UK, whereas in the US it takes at least 2 years to complete a Masters regardless.

This not only means students are able to enter the workforce sooner, but students can also save themselves up to a year’s worth of expenses associated with studying (fees plus living costs).

Less stringent language requirements 

With COVID-19 making it difficult for students to complete their English language tests in person, due to many test centres being closed, UK universities have relaxed their English proficiency requirements, allowing students to complete the Duolingo English Test in lieu of traditional tests like IELTS and TOEFL.

This is advantageous to students in several ways. As well as being entirely online, meaning students can complete it from the comfort of their home, the Duolingo English Test is also much cheaper (around a quarter of the cost of traditional tests) and only takes around 45-60 minutes (compared to the IELTS, which can take 2-3 hours). Students are also able to easily take several practice tests online in order to prepare.

Better health response compared to the US

While the UK has certainly had their troubles controlling outbreaks of COVID-19, they at least seem to be taking the virus much more seriously than in the US, where the president himself has eschewed the use of masks and encouraged large public gatherings with little to no social distancing.

The UK, for example, announced that from March 20, all foreigners in the UK would be entitled to free COVID-19 tests. UK universities are also undertaking several measures to protect students’ wellbeing, such as moving to online learning and instilling measures to encourage and enforce social distancing.

That being said, health is still a major concern for Chinese international students, and a significant factor in their decision to undertake their course. A survey by the British Council conducted in August found 81% of Chinese students who had applied to study in the UK were “very concerned” about their health and wellbeing. It also showed that 19% of students were either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to cancel or delay their plans to study overseas for the 2020/21 academic year, showing many students are preferring to err on the side of caution, while 31% of Chinese students were “neither likely nor unlikely”, showing how uncertain many students were about what decision they would make.

With the UK currently in the midst of a second wave of infections, it seems likely many of those initially undecided students will be making the decision to cancel or defer another year.


More accessible than other study destinations

With international borders in other popular study destinations still closed to international students, the UK is perhaps benefiting from applications from students that would otherwise have applied to study in countries like Australia and New Zealand. China is also still on the list of countries whose citizens are barred from entering the US unless they have quarantined elsewhere for 14 days.

That said, students wanting to study in the UK are still having to contend with travel difficulties such as fewer flights, less possible connections, and more expensive fares.

Post-study work opportunities

The UK has recently reinstituted generous post-study work visas, allowing graduates to work in the UK for 2-3 years after completing their degrees. This makes the UK a particularly appealing destination, as students are able to gain valuable overseas work experience that can help give them an edge in the highly competitive Chinese job market.

What UK universities need to do to shore up enrolment numbers

As shown above, there are many factors that make the UK an attractive study option for Chinese international students, but there are also several factors that may make students think twice about their enrolments, first and foremost being the prevalence of coronavirus in the community.

So what can universities do to shore up enrolment numbers in the coming years?

The key here is communication.

Universities need to engage regularly with prospective students in the current application cycle. With applications due mid-October, now is the perfect time to start building a relationship with these students to ensure they feel confident enough to start their courses the following year.

Universities can do this by leveraging their digital channels, such as their website and WeChat account, to give them key information that may impact their decision. For example, these students may want to know about recent changes to student visas, which mean that students can start their studies remotely without a visa, and they can start the visa process much earlier than previously. If your university is in a location with a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, this may also be worth communicating to students, as well as the specific measures your university is undertaking to prevent the spread of the virus.

It’s also important that universities continue to build brand awareness during this time, in order to attract students for the next application cycle (October 2021). The UK is for the first time in a position to overtake the US as the most popular study destination for Chinese international students, but if they want to take and hold that spot, they can’t afford to take their foot off the pedal. Again, leveraging digital channels is one key element of an effective brand strategy – you may, for example, want to focus on improving your website’s SEO or building WeChat groups in order to connect with prospective students on a more personal level.

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