Updated: 2013-04-12 08:39
By David Bartram for China Daily and Ji Xiang (China Daily)
The 2013 China International Education Exhibition Tour in March attracted more than 50 universities from the United Kingdom. Provided to China Daily
Education experts want UK universities to do more to attract Chinese students to the country
Chinese students are becoming an increasingly important source of revenue for Britain's financially squeezed universities, but experts say there is more the education institutions can do to market and recruit in China.
China sends more students to British universities than any other country, with more than 78,000 studying in the UK in 2012, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. If year-on-year growth continues, that number will likely top 100,000 by 2014.
But despite sending more than twice the number from India, the next highest source of students, there is a sense among education experts that British universities are not doing enough to interact with Chinese students exploring the possibility of studying in the UK.
The 2013 China International Education Exhibition Tour in March attracted more than 50 UK universities, yet their recruitment programs such as language training courses and UK tour activities are not specifically tailored for the Chinese students but for international students as a whole, experts say.
"British universities tend to have UK-centric marketing departments. There is a tendency to treat the rest of the world as if it's one place," says Paul Hoskins, who works in the higher education sector and is chairman of Precedent, a digital communications agency. "They don't have the knowledge of the Chinese market and as a result most of their marketing tends to be quite crude."
Claire Axel-Berg, head of the international office at the University of Bristol, admitted that in recent years, the college's marketing and recruitment budgets have actually shifted away from China. She says prospective Chinese students are resourceful enough to discern for themselves the best way to go about applying for overseas education.
"The money we spend in China is absolutely no more than the money we spend in countries that yield a fraction of the number of students," Axel-Berg says. "The marketing is what you need when you are dealing with a population who don't really understand what they are looking for. China fully understands what it's looking for. So really all we do in China is raise awareness to get people to look at us. We don't have to feed any specific messages."
Experts say UK institutions can do a host of things differently to attract more Chinese students, from micro-managing recruitment agencies, creating a bigger presence on social networking sites and online message boards in China, to expanding their websites with more cultural information about the UK. Hoskins suggests universities make more of an effort to connect with the demands of prospective Chinese students, such as offering a more rounded cultural experience.
"Chinese students want to study abroad to gain a broader worldview. If some of the marketing departments understood this, they might, for instance, develop more cultural activities for overseas students," Hoskins says.
The School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, for example, is relatively recent in its focus on China as a key recruitment market. David Tumilty, international officer at the school's student recruitment office, says the office ensures that it establishes the basics first.
"This means maintaining the various relationships we already have and developing new ones in tier-one cities before eventually considering other parts of China," Tumilty says. "China has been good at working with, and identifying, English-speaking countries other than the UK or the US as viable study destinations, but the UK will remain attractive due to the number of its academically excellent universities, particularly in London, which boasts a strong number of world-class institutions."
Many British universities opt to pour money in exhibiting their universities at expensive fairs in China's major cities, but Ernie Diaz, director of the online marketing agency Web Presence In China, says there is more value online.
"The Internet has made connecting with prospective Chinese students eminently possible and it's a great irony that so few of these schools effectively use this approach," he says. "For less than the price of a fair tour to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, a university could have a permanent, proactive, easily found web presence in China."
Diaz notes the popularity of online bulletin boards in China and points toward websites such as Taisha where hundreds of thousands of Chinese students discuss study abroad options. UK universities, thus far, have made little effort to interact with these students, he says.
"Any study abroad candidate in China is actively online waiting for some direct communication with a university. The web presence is enormously important because the one thing that sells in China is word of mouth. If a school had a Mandarin speaker or a Chinese alumnus who could answer questions on popular message boards, students would be so knocked out the universities are taking time to connect with them, they would soon be telling their friends," Diaz says.
Rather than engage online with China, many universities choose the easier option of outsourcing recruitment to agencies, though controversy erupted last year when a Times Higher Education report showed that British universities spend almost 60 million pounds ($91 million; 71 million euros) a year on agency fees. Although universities defended their right to pay agencies, arguing that it was the most efficient way to recruit students in some countries, critics argued that the money might be better spent improving the quality of education for those already attending.
Both students and institutions have reasons to be concerned about the prevalence of the agency system. For students, they worry they will not receive impartial advice since most agencies operate on a commission basis. The fear is that many agencies may recommend universities based on their own interests rather than in the interest of the student.
For universities, the concern is that agencies are providing too much assistance to students in the application process and that mediocre students can buy their way into top universities with the help of an agent.
Tumilty says SOAS works with several agencies in China.
"Agencies do play a role in our recruitment activity, but we are not dependent on them for a significant number of our students. We choose to work with a small number of agents in China so we can work more closely with them to ensure they understand what we look for in a student," he says.
Bristol University also uses recruiting agents, but Axel-Berg says the college manages them first-hand through an office in Beijing and does not alter its entrance requirements for overseas students. The university also manages an active Sina Weibo blog that provides current information to prospective students and encourages Chinese alumni to speak honestly with applicants. She says the university tends to avoid major education fairs in favor of smaller presentations and receptions organized independently across China.
"Our strategic plan for China will include the use of weibo and possibly QQ (a popular instant messaging software) if we find it feasible to do so. In fact, we already have a weibo account that has been reactivated after a period of dormancy," Tumilty says.
Of course, the best way to improve a university's reputation in China is to ensure that the Chinese students who do attend have a positive experience. At the University of Sheffield, approximately 50 percent of the overseas student body is from China. The university is currently taking steps to offer them better support.
"I was working during (China's economic reforms in the late 1970s) and the first major wave of Chinese students coming over to the UK," says professor Rebecca Hughes, pro-vice-chancellor at the university. "At that point nobody predicted the exponential growth in Chinese student numbers that has happened, and that it would cause such a sustained change in the British higher education sector."
In recent years, the university has committed to a program of internationalization and continues to explore ways to better integrate its overseas student population into the wider student body.
"We have an active peer-mentoring scheme between home students and Chinese students. Our English-language center has a hosting scheme which gives overseas students a chance to spend time with local residents. We try to encourage volunteering so they feel a sense of community," Hughes says. "In all Asian markets and especially China, word of mouth is extremely important."
Experts encourage UK universities to make more efforts to interact with Chinese students via online platforms. Provided to China Daily
Improvements in English language teaching in China over the past 15 years have made the university's job of integrating Chinese students into campus life a lot easier, she says. Today, Chinese students are likely to enjoy a more academically and socially balanced learning experience at British universities.
"The Chinese government is to be applauded for doing a great job in broadening language skills. Before, students had a good grasp of vocabulary but they struggled with more informal conversation. Now they have some experience speaking informally. It allows them to participate in more activities, contribute to seminars and take part in out-of-school events," Hughes says.
Tumilty says Chinese students recognize that with China's economic growth and increasing global stature, an education in English is vital "in an economy that will only increase its engagement with international and multinational organizations".
"Of course, if the Chinese government did not place such emphasis on English, then it may have been much harder to appeal to students if they had no incentive to study overseas."
Zhang Ying, a senior counselor at Beijing EduGlobal Development Co Ltd, an education service provider, says Chinese students are getting wiser about which schools they want to attend. Chinese parents and students, she says, are spending a great deal of time doing research before they turn to agents for advice.
"Most students have a clear goal. They are very much informed," Zhang says.
Many middle school students in China's major cities can pass China's College English Test, an English-as-a-foreign-language test, claims Zhang Lan Lan, an adviser at the Beijing New Oriental School, a private institution. The test serves to examine the English proficiency of undergraduate and postgraduate students in China.
Still, challenges remain for UK universities if they want to remain a favored destination for Chinese students. Many experts say the British government must do more to support higher education, and they point to new visa regulations that have made it harder for recent overseas graduates to remain in the UK for work.
"Our visa regulations are not helpful. We want to be able to say Britain is open for business and we are open to talented students from around the world," Hughes says.
"It's ridiculous that the UK isn't doing as much to promote and value education as other countries," he says. "(British education exports) will be worth 26 billion pounds ($40 billion; 31 billion euros) by 2025. That's a lot of money, but more importantly if the UK is the center for international education, it puts the UK at the center of a globally connected world. It's a two-way street. It's not just the Chinese students learning from the UK, it's us learning from Chinese students."
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(China Daily 04/12/2013 page10)