How Chinese students choose universities and why it matters

Rocky Chi, Head of Content and Insight at Emerging Comms, discusses the expanding Chinese 'market' and how UK universities can help attract students

There is good news for universities in terms of demand for places from China. In the longer term the lifting of the one child only rule in 2015 combines with the country’s currently growing wealthy middle class, more parents wanting their children to be educated overseas, and lower income groups now enabling their children to attend universities in the West.    

However, the ‘market’ is becoming more complex, constantly evolving in profile, and therefore also in terms of its needs and wants. Future student candidates have to be viewed as constantly moving targets.   

In the last few years the profiles of those aiming to study outside China have largely fallen into broad groups:

  • Second Generation Wealth Inheritors – those who are to be sent abroad to prepare for taking on family businesses.
  • Explorers – young professionals that seek international education in order to advance their careers.
  • Experienced Players – those that have been taught in international schools in China as part of preparation for a global career.

It is important to recognise the significance of the categories described, but equally they should be considered as the starting point for targeting, and in fact, may not apply to some universities. The courses offered and other factors that form proposition may mean prospect targets fall outside the three groups, and that more detailed investigation is required.

However, the categories described are a good place to start understanding the Chinese student market, and knowing about them is important. Second Generation Wealth Inheritors come from families in which parents have had to work hard for success, but did not get a chance to gain experience of studying or working overseas. They desire that their children obtain an international business degree and ideally work experience that will prepare them for making a success of the family business when they take over.  

To appeal to Second Generation Wealth Inheritors, it is necessary to demonstrate how they will benefit from university in preparing for the opportunities and challenges that lay beyond time in education. It is the longer term that candidates are looking to, and recognising this enables universities to respond accordingly.   

Explorers are aged between 25 and 30, already have a degree earned in China, work in tier one cities, and often for international companies. The motivation for re-entering education is to gain competitive advantage in the intensely competitive management jobs market. Obtaining a degree in a business-related subject will often give them the edge they need.

The trend towards career-break study currently stands at 13% of the overall Chinese student market, and grew 4% last year (source New Oriental Vision Overseas – Report on Chinese Students Overseas Study, 2017).

What Explorers look for when making the decision about where to study is course content and almost nothing else. If it will not help them get ahead they are not interested. For this reason, explorers usually know exactly what course content they require.

Experienced Players have been marked out for overseas university education from a young age by parents that have a global outlook, and a wish that their children pursue international careers.  

Children will usually have attended one of the nearly 750 international schools in China that teach syllabi from the West, of which 47% operate under the A level system. When selecting universities and courses, Experienced Players have a detailed understanding of what they are looking for, and are clear about expectation. From this perspective, they have as much in common with many of their UK counterparts as they do their peers in China. 

As well as course being a key selection criteria, other factors stem from the international and cosmopolitan outlook of family. This includes cultural opportunities, nearby holiday options for visitors from China, property purchase, and even business investment. For universities to appeal to Experienced Players it is necessary to paint a much broader picture than just academic benefit.

It is inevitable that the three segments described will change and fragment as part of China’s fast evolving social and economic culture. It means universities need to be prepared to constantly adapt what they offer, but those that do respond quickly benefit by standing out from the crowd. What is more, with peer recommendation being such a very powerful feature in all types of decision making in China, the rewards for matching the needs of the audience make the effort worthwhile.  

W: www.emergingcomms.com