For nearly two years, the international student recruiter has faced an uphill battle. With many nations caught in the grip of the pandemic, international student movement ground to a halt in early 2020. Since then, the desires and behaviours of international students have undergone a seismic shift. Nowhere is this more apparent than in China, where concerns over COVID-19 and a growth in online engagement has changed what Chinese students expect from foreign universities.
As 2021 draws to an end, international student enrolments are starting to show signs of recovery. However, if they don't adapt to the changes within the Chinese student ecosystem, international student recruiters will fail to recapture Chinese student demand. Here's how these changes have impacted the role of the international student recruiter over the last 18 months.
Has Chinese demand for overseas study survived the pandemic?
Firstly, some good news: the events of the past two years haven't dampened Chinese desires to study overseas. According to the Chinese Government-owned China Daily, 91% of China's would-be international students still intend to study abroad. Of this number, up to 31% plan their overseas study two years in advance.
Student recruiters can glean two key facts from these figures:
1) Demand for international study remains largely unchanged in China
2) Recruiters who wish to target Chinese students for 2023 enrolment need to begin now
How Chinese student priorities have changed
While demand for study abroad hasn't changed much in the last two years, the priorities of would-be Chinese international students certainly have. According to research conducted by the Beijing-based New Oriental Group, when Chinese students now choose an international education provider, their three key factors are:
- The pandemic response policies of the host country
- The local severity of the pandemic situation
- The state of the host country’s relations with China.
Needless to say, these factors fall beyond the control of any education provider. However, schools and universities can take control of the narrative by maintaining an active China-facing digital presence. By doing so, they can speak directly to these three priorities through channels that prospective Chinese students use regularly.
The same research from New Oriental also revealed a slew of problems amongst currently enrolled Chinese international students. The two problems which have grown the most since 2019 have been language skills and safety. The former has increased in response to online learning, which many Chinese students report is a challenge for their English. Conversely, concerns over safety have skyrocketed since 2019. This surge has chiefly stemmed from two sources: the dangers of the Coronavirus pandemic, and reported assaults of Chinese students in Western nations.
Mental health has also emerged as problem – in large part due to the pressures of Coronavirus and remote learning. In more positive news, issues with cultural differences have slightly declined in 2021 after growing in 2020. Other pre-pandemic problems, such as social skills and homesickness, have either levelled out or grown only marginally.
How the absence of Chinese international students has changed recruitment
Understanding the needs of future international students is critical for any recruitment campaign. Just as essential, though, is the impact that the lack of on-campus students has wrought on international Chinese student enrolment.
Thanks to the pandemic, many Chinese students have chosen to postpone their study abroad, while others have studied online. As a result, many Western universities lack new Chinese students and alumni to promote their courses in China. This is significant for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there is the fact that returned alumni play a key role in influencing Chinese students to study abroad. This is especially true for universities which don’t top the QS Rankings, and can’t depend on a global reputation.
However, current in-country students are just as integral. Pre-pandemic, Chinese international students often acted as social media influencers, broadcasting their in-country experiences to communities back home. As a result, universities without a digital footprint in China could depend on their Chinese students to spread the word.
Now, universities can’t currently depend on the same depth and breadth of user generated content to reach prospective students. Unfortunately, this digital dearth has coincided with an increase in the net number of hours that Chinese students and their parents spend online. Because of this change in behaviour, students and their families now expect prospective universities to be present in their digital ecosystems.
As such, digital outreach needs to play a larger part than ever in student recruitment strategy.
What this means for the international student recruiter
In short, Chinese student recruitment has evolved to require a greater digital presence and targeted messaging around student safety concerns. To properly execute the former, the well-equipped international student recruiter will require three steps:
1) Invest time into properly understanding the Chinese digital ecosystem.
2) Focus on setting up digital foundations in China. Unlike Western consumers, who generally require four touchpoints to make a buying decision, the average Chinese student requires eight. This means that digital foundations aren’t simply a “nice-to-have” for recruiters – they are essential in any prospective student’s decision journey. For this reason, recruiters will want to begin by launching a WeChat account, creating a China-friendly website, and developing the necessary SEO foundations.
The key objectives of a Chinese website are:
a. Enable Chinese search engines, support agents, and institution partners to connect prospective students to a program.
b. Engage with students and parents directly to cultivate trust. When choosing an educator, Chinese students do their own research via Baidu and other Chinese search engines. If they find a university's official Chinese website in their search, they will use that information to validate an agent’s recommendation.
c. Build a digital foundation in China to kickstart other digital marketing activities, like paid media campaigns.
d. Integrate with the institution's WeChat channel to support leads generation from social media.
When you launch your digital presence, you’ll want to tick these boxes as soon as possible. By doing so, you’ll be able to reach those eight touchpoints much faster.
3) Measure the performance of any digital presence in China and develop a continuous improvement mindset. By regularly monitoring the data from your digital channels, you and your team will gain a better understanding of what resonates with your target audience in China.