The importance of recognising Chinese students’ requirements

Not addressing the cohort's needs can cause devastating reputational damage, says Emerging Communications' Rocky Chi

A survey by Westminster’s All Party Parliamentary Group on the Chinese in Britain has found that most Chinese students at UK universities are unhappy. Learners from China comprise approximately 30% of the UK’s international student population, with the report revealing some of the everyday challenges they face.

UK universities’ reputation as a welcoming and prestigious destination for world class learning has led to an assumption that the needs of Chinese students are being provided for, but research shows that, to a large degree, this is wrong. Not only are students often unhappy, they frequently consider that the only interest universities have in them is as a source of income. Once committed to courses they frequently feel abandoned, and left to fend for themselves.

Viewed from a commercial – as well as a welfare perspective – this is a concern. When Chinese students express themselves, their sentiments are frequently echoed far and wide across social media to large audiences, and those taking notice include would-be students and parents researching university places.

At their most extreme, single posts on Chinese social media have the ability to make or break a university’s reputation in China in a dramatic way. For example, there was recent outrage following social media reporting of a notice placed in a UK university toilet. Asking users of the facility to be more considerate in keeping the area clean, the fact the notice was written only in Mandarin was taken as an inference that Chinese students alone needed to be reminded about cleanliness. Consequent messages on Weibo and WeChat went viral, leading to nationwide anger at what was considered to be an attack on the reputation of China itself.

The negative fallout from similar instances of mass indignation is often irreparable, and lasts for many years. Even what may appear relatively minor problems, such as the reporting of homesickness, can tarnish a university’s reputation to some degree.

Chinese students attending universities in the UK are, potentially, either a significant marketing barrier to attracting new intake, or the best opportunity for recruitment.

The starting pointing for addressing the problem of unhappiness among Chinese undergraduates is to imagine how anyone would feel having recently left school, relocated alone thousands of miles away from home in an alien culture – unsure of the food, fellow students, the general population at large – and having to rely on a foreign language that, until recently, was only used for academic purposes.

Here, then, are the actions that can be undertaken to create assurance and a welcoming environment.

The first step is to have dialogue with Chinese students when they arrive; or, better still, before departure from China. Find out what they want beyond academic need, what problems they may have, and ask what they want doing to put things right. Continue to monitor wellbeing – anonymous surveys are a good idea.

From listening to addressing concerns, there are steps that should be considered for building greater inclusivity. Frequently, there is little interaction between students from China and their peers. The former usually mix only with each other in small groups, often isolated from the general student population. Often they feel unable – or too intimidated – to reach out to other students; a feeling of ‘them and us’ can quickly develop.

Big events do not work in creating integration, as people can become lost amid the large numbers. Creating a China society or arranging a China day may also seem a good idea, but the result can be the reinforcing of boundaries rather than breaking them down. The focus should be on enabling Chinese students to integrate more closely on campus and in the local community, not seeming to make them a special case.

Once committed to courses, Chinese students frequently feel abandoned and left to fend for themselves

Other opportunities to improve the lives of Chinese students include aiding access to the NHS, introducing local sport and leisure facilities, providing briefings on local culture and people, career consultancy, and counselling services.

Generating ways to introduce Chinese students to additional learning, as well as social and business experience opportunities, are always received very positively. While not directly addressing welfare concerns, anything that adds to learning and work practice – and builds CVs – is perceived as positive and valuable, and therefore adds to a better university experience. It is something that should be looked at with a view to creating a formal programme.

From a commercial perspective, Chinese students attending universities in the UK are, potentially, either a significant marketing barrier to attracting new intake, or the best opportunity for recruitment. They are on campus and interpreting the university brand every day, reporting on it through social media. It is a good reason to listen to them, understand their real needs, and support them.

The key to all of this is to start by listening, before taking modular steps, however small. It will make a difference, and positive results will build; when they are happy, Chinese students let others know it. They became brand ambassadors and, in China, there is no more positive way for any product or service to be promoted.

Rocky Chi is head of content and insight at Emerging Communications