Selling the UK university experience to Chinese students

From the importance of soft skills to ensuring you get your marketing in early, Emerging Communications' Rocky Chi outlines all you need to know

It is not uncommon for me to be approached by a university in March and asked if it is too early to start marketing places to Chinese students for enrolment in September. My response is always the same; you should really have been asking this question eight months ago.

It is logical to assume students from China would plan to the same timescales as UK counterparts. They similarly have to rely on results in order to qualify for places, and match their grades with universities accordingly. But there are a significantly greater number of factors in researching and deciding on the right location and course if you come from China.

One consideration is the intense dedication to which students and parents apply to overseas education, and the importance of the knowledge and experiences available outside course curriculum that universities can provide. Planning, including finance, is prepared in much more detail compared with decision-making in the UK.

It is also worth remembering the visa application process, including language test, has to be completed prior to the Christmas proceeding courses starting in September. By February, many candidates will already hold four to five offers based on eight to ten applications, which means the marketing cycle needs to begin in August rather than late winter or spring. A year before actual enrolment is when universities should be aiming to get on the selection radar.

‘The majority of Chinese students feel they are treated as a cash commodity, and there are many stories of them feeling psychologically lost or abandoned.’

In what is a buyers’ market, universities should enter themselves into the decision-making cycle early, and of course the messaging has to be right, particularly for those universities that know they have to try hard to compete against flagship educational institutions.

However, ranking and status are assuming a less significant role in the selection process as choice criteria changes. Increasingly, students and parents are looking for universities that can provide more rounded experiences, opportunities outside course study, and wellbeing support. Universities that create and demonstrate that they can provide ‘soft skills’, and effective welfare support for those that are thousands of miles from home, can quickly develop a positive and lasting reputation that supersedes traditional selling factors.

Soft skills can incorporate a wide range of benefits. They might include creating an intern and work experience placement service specifically for Chinese students, charity work, the ability to learn entrepreneurship outside course curriculum, and visits to companies. The key criteria for such activity is that it should enhance employability both in the UK and back home. If in doubt, ask: how would it look on a CV?

One university has very successfully taken a lead in this direction by placing students as in-house marketing interns to help target future students from China. This is an imaginative way of significantly bolstering the marketing programme, and providing the soft skills element students are looking for.

Cultural understanding and wellbeing are of growing importance as selection criteria. Like it or not, the majority of Chinese students feel they are treated as a cash commodity, and there are many stories of them feeling psychologically lost or abandoned. This is often a significant concern of parents.

‘One consideration is the intense dedication to which students and parents apply to overseas education – planning, including finance, is prepared in much more detail compared with decision-making in the UK.’

The reality is the majority of students find they only mix with their national counterparts in isolated groups within campus, often only with those on their own course. Mostly they do not feel universities or UK students welcome them. Postgraduates in particular can feel isolated.

Building programmes and creating an environment designed to demonstrate and encourage inclusivity, plus effective wellbeing monitoring, is a very powerful draw to students and parents alike. Such initiatives are good business investments because, when they work, students themselves become self-appointed marketing ambassadors spreading positive messages far and wide. There is no better way to promote successfully to audiences in China than to have peers acting as advocates on Chinese social media.

Such benefits can be enhanced further by creating Chinese alumni groups that talk about their success and experiences during and after their time at the university. Former students will often willingly assist in the marketing process because it bolsters their own prospects as well as those of the university.

The key element in all of this is that, if there are gaps to be filled in catering for the needs of Chinese students, start making modular steps. Each stage can be publicised and capitalised upon as it happens. It is a positive way for universities to provide a better and more valuable experience, and also generates greater numbers of applications that are taken up.

Rocky Chi is Head of Content and Insight at Emerging Communications.