The challenge universities face with coronavirus in the recruitment of Chinese students is to a large extent, based on uncertainty.
Uncertainty about when and if International English Language Testing System (IELTS) testing will take place, when UK visa offices will reopen in China, when offers can be made, and when international flights will return to normal.
But there are practical measures universities can take to significantly improve recruitment opportunities now, and in the future. In fact, some actions are essential in order to protect reputation.
The challenge falls into two parts, recruitment of future intakes, and managing the wellbeing of the current Chinese cohort.
Taking the lead
The immediate future student base in China is unsure of whether it will be able to study in the UK in September, and if so how. This has prompted more than 23,000 discussions on Chinese social media, and in excess of 130,000,000 reads. For the Chinese middle classes, this is a mainstream topic, and universities that take a firm lead can create a positive legacy from it. Conversely, those that prevaricate will be subject to reverse consequences.
Decisiveness and providing lots of information is important. Universities may also wish to implement their own language tests instead of IELTS. This can be done online. The same applies to pre-sessional courses. China is a truly omni-channel nation, and during the lockdown there has been huge demand for online educational provision. Future students will take online assessment and distance learning in their stride.
It is important to realise recruitment goals previously set are unlikely to be achieved
It is important to extend all deadlines as far as possible to maximise the intake for this year, but it is also important to realise recruitment goals previously set are unlikely to be achieved.
Plan now for 2021
The intention in China to study in the UK as the first choice destination will continue on an upward popularity trajectory, and it is important for universities to understand they are in a strong position for the medium and long term. The new two-year post-study work visa for international students has been a major motivating factor in choosing study in the UK.
This is the perfect opportunity to get a head start
Many prospective students are making a plan B for this academic year and considering a gap year. It is logical to keep any offers to them open, and they should be enrolled early.
The recruitment marketing drive for September 2021 should also begin earlier than normal. The optimum timing will be early summer. Also, now is the time to promote January courses. Because social gathering is still restricted in many areas of China, there is far more online research taking place. This is the perfect opportunity to get a head start.
Future recruitment for 2021 and beyond is to a significant degree dependent on how current Chinese students are supported. This is a sensitive time for all Chinese people. President Trump has been ramping anti China sentiment in the West for many years, and has referred to Coronavirus as the ‘Chinese virus’ in a way not understood by non-Chinese. The situation with the virus has heightened negative attitudes to the degree that violence is involved.
More than 30 universities have taken action in March to switch to online courses for current students. It is actually a very good opportunity for universities to test out and adopt distance learning methods that can be applied to the 2020 new academic year in order to fulfil international offers without the need for travel, and not only to those in China.
Negative sentiment is lasting, and can do serious long term harm in the ability to recruit intakes
Student comments on social platforms Weibo and WeChat that relate to racism, violence, and any perceived poor treatment spreads extraordinarily quickly, and causes long term damage. Unlike in the West, social media is the primary source of digital research, not search engines. Negative sentiment is lasting, and can do serious long term harm in the ability to recruit intakes.
Managing the crisis
As far as most current Chinese students are concerned, there is crisis situation. Social media monitoring shows there is a major interest in flying home by private jet at costs ranging from £12,000 to £25,000 per person.
Many universities are rising to the virus challenge relating to Chinese students well, but most can do more. But there is a crisis situation because most students think one exists. Social media is a key factor again. Negative thoughts are posted without hesitation and spread far and wide, but the same is true of positive sentiment. It is worth remembering that research shows that in China, peer recommendation is the most powerful influence in deciding which university to attend.
At the moment, professional Chinese crisis management is one of the best short, medium and long term marketing investments universities can make. Understanding and responding to negative sentiment immediately is essential, and pushing out appropriate positive messages should be a given. If something negative is said it must be addressed instantly. Responding several hours later is not enough. Monitoring are immediate response is needed.
There is no avoiding the fact that the current situation is far from easy, but there are positives to the current situation. Universities have the opportunity to make a lasting name for being highly supportive. Unquestionably September 2021 will see the biggest ever figures for Chinese students, and preparation for this should begin now.
Rocky Chi is head of planning at Chinese marketing consultancy Emerging Communications.