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The Chinese student and university brand building in a new recruitment landscape

March 21, 2021 |   Ada Wang

A couple of years ago our Shanghai-based COO, Dandan Cheng, wrote a comprehensive article for Times Higher Education outlining nine reasons why Chinese students choose to study abroad:

1. An enriched experience
2. Opportunity to meet a diverse range of people
3. To enhance future employment prospects
4. To improve language skills
5. Avoiding the Gaokao entrance exam in China
6. Preparation for immigration and working abroad
7. Due to the influence of friends
8. Better, more flexible educational environments that have a greater focus on improving soft skills
9. Parental influence

Many working in the field of Chinese student recruitment would, no doubt, relate to these, and it’s true that many indeed still hold true.

Then came 2020 and a global pandemic, creating never-before-seen challenges for tertiary institutions and international student intakes.

But with challenge, came opportunity.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant tertiary institutions had to move with speed and agility to manage the challenges and prevent large drop-offs in Chinese student numbers. And it wasn’t just the pandemic that was changing Chinese student attitudes to study abroad. Some markets, such as the US, had already seen a slowdown in Chinese student enrolment in the years prior due to a range of factors but predominantly due to shifting global political tensions.

To better understand how universities responded to the challenges of 2020, Sinorbis recently sponsored a webinar with The PIE News, an international education industry publication.

Rick Garfunkel, Vice President for Global Affairs from Rutgers University, Jing Luan Provost International Affairs from San Mateo Colleges and Baihua Chadwick, Associate Vice-President International from Thompson Rivers University offered invaluable insight into how they navigated the new Chinese student recruitment landscape and continued to build attractive brands for their institutions.

You can view the full panel discussion webinar here - it’s a fascinating watch for recruiters and prospective Chinese students alike.

Before delving into the key takeaways from the webinar, it’s worth briefly summarising three main factors Chinese students are considering when it comes to choosing where they will study in 2021 and beyond. The research comes from the international student survey undertaken by QS Enrolment Solutions on behalf of multiple universities.

The three main factors are:

  1. University brand and academic reputation: Chinese students rank high–quality teaching as the most important factor (60%), followed by having a good reputation for their chosen subject area (54%) and the institution being well-ranked (44%).
  2. Welcoming environments and support: Chinese students value safety and being made to feel welcome the most important (81%), followed by universities with high-quality teaching (69%).
  3. Safety while studying abroad: In terms of reservations Chinese students have about studying abroad, safety ranked highest (66%), followed by cost of living (61%) and whether they will do well academically (53%).

Much of this was reflected in responses from our webinar panellists, with each offering unique strategies they adopted during 2020 to meet these needs.

Rick Garfunkel, Vice President for Global Affairs, Rutgers University

Garfunkel oversees a large global affairs unit that maintained a heavy presence on the ground in China before the pandemic. His team engaged in standard recruitment activities, such as visiting schools, attending education fairs, digital marketing and pre-departure orientations. When this became impossible, Rutgers conceived of the ‘Rose Initiative’, a series of ‘mini campuses’ for first-year undergrads that tried to replicate the study abroad experience at home in China. It was such a resounding success that Rutgers is considering making it permanent - a unique addition to their brand offering. Rick and the team are also in the enviable position of many of the Chinese students attending Rutgers being in STEM or business courses, meaning fewer security issues around access to online courses and the content therein.

Jing Luan, Provost International Affairs, San Mateo Colleges

Luan is clear about one thing when it comes to recruitment - China is rankings obsessed. This plays well to the college’s marketing strategy given that it was recently ranked in the top 3 community colleges in the US and has received prestigious accolades, such as the Presidential Award for excellence in export. Alongside this is the equally important need to speak the ‘education and cultural language’ of Chinese parents. This means that focusing on principals, agencies and parents is as important as on the students themselves when it comes to recruitment. Like his fellow webinar panellists, San Mateo embraced standard recruitment strategies prior to COVID. However, it had already been pivoting to online learning, so the shift to this as the temporary mainstay of their offering during the pandemic was not as big a challenge as it might otherwise have been. He also hopes it here to stay. In terms of security and the omnipresent issue of the Great Chinese Firewall, San Mateo took a novel approach, allowing students to navigate this mostly themselves, while also offering the Amazon app stream as a channel. Despite the tensions that have existed between the US and China, Luan is adamant the Chinese government understands US universities build their brand and reputation around a more free and open learning environment. However, he also admitted that the college asks its academics to be cognisant of political tensions that parts of their curriculum may exacerbate when they offer virtual learning.

Baihua Chadwick, Associate Vice-President International, Thompson Rivers University

Chadwick is quick to point to a quickly changing landscape, particularly when it comes to western v eastern marketing channels. With new platforms appearing constantly, she believes it’s important to keep across developments but is not for rushing into trends just for the sake of it. This may come from Thompson Rivers having played something of a ‘long-game’ when it comes to China - it has had a presence there for over two decades. Key to its ongoing success of university brand building has been offering customised training programmes and developing dual-degree programmes. By virtue of this, partnerships have been crucial, in particular, engaging academics both at home and in China to deliver programs that enable curriculum matching and modification. Around more strategic marketing, because the days of travelling to fairs or see agents are still some way off, Chadwick feels that even post-pandemic digital marketing in China will remain a key plank in university brand building and recruitment. This includes paid social media marketing, student testimonial videos, virtual student town halls, virtual orientation and ongoing support for students to encourage them to engage with virtual learning. Chadwick also believes agent relationships remain imperative going forward, as is ensuring Chinese students that their eventual return to the US to study abroad will be safe.

Key takeaways for university brand building in the new recruitment landscape

In summary, despite a challenging 2020, our panellists remain positive about the future, predicting a rebound in numbers, albeit in a more competitive global landscape where many countries are positioning themselves to encourage more Chinese students to their institutions.

However, the panellists’ insights indicate there can be little doubt that the landscape has changed when it comes to university brand building and recruitment for Chinese students. Key to remaining competitive is being attractive to Chinese students as a ‘non-Chinese’ university. This is achievable primarily by continuing to promote the study abroad experience as more than just about obtaining a degree, positioning it as the opportunity to gain valuable exposure to another culture at a respected university brand.

In terms of marketing, China needs to be approached as a standalone market with distinct channels. Any activity around engagement and conversion should be geared towards both prospective students and, importantly, their parents in a culturally appropriate fashion.

This can be achieved in a variety of ways, including:

  • Having a Chinese version of the institution’s website that is not just a direct translation of the English site and includes social media integration appropriate to a Chinese audience.
  • Strategic channel selection: Utilising key search engines such as Baidu PPC, social media marketing via channels such as Weibo, WeChat, Youku and Tudou, and targeting mobile apps in a country with by far the greatest smartphone uptake on the planet.
  • Increased online PR to improve university visibility and brand reputation achieved via the presentation of case studies, statistics, reputation pieces and thought leadership pieces that appeal to the values of prospective Chinese students and their parents.
  • A resumption of traditional offline activity once international travel recommences, including attending fairs and schools, and using agents (preferably those vetted US Commercial Services and ARACY) to maintain a tangible presence in China. And, if having staff on the ground is not feasible, using international recruitment groups to offer this presence.
  • Creating a unique selling point, such as Rutger’s ‘Rose Initiative’, and continuing to reassess and reshape models around the Chinese student educational offering to show agility and a forward-thinking mindset.

And, the backdrop to any of these strategies around university brand building and recruitment is the need to continue building upon the institution’s academic reputation, while making it clear student safety and well-being are paramount, positioning the institution as a welcoming and supportive environment for Chinese students.

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