Recent surveys of universities in the US, the UK and Australia have shown a rapid rise in the number of institutions using China’s most popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo to reach out to students in China and use social media as a tool for international recruitment.
Weibo, launched in 2009, now has some 400 million Chinese language users, according to statistics released in November by the company Sina, which operates the platform. This is a big jump from 300 million users in May 2012 and 200 million in August 2011.
Although it is not the only social media network in China – others are Renren and the less known Sohu and Tencent – Weibo is widely used in a country where media censorship is rife, and enables users to directly seek out information that may not be available publicly.
Some influential Chinese academics also have Weibo accounts and attract a huge student and broader following, and there are others with a large student following such as billionaire businesswoman Zhang Xin, an alumnus of the Universities of Cambridge and Sussex in the UK, and her husband Pan Shiyi, who has more than 15 million Weibo followers.
“Weibo is the best for outreach,” said Tina Hu, a senior director in China for CIC, a social media and market research company, speaking at the British Council’s Going Global conference last year. “It is about the here and now; it is very viral.”
“Weibo is ubiquitous in China,” said Sid Krommenhoek, founder of Zinch, the US-based education-oriented online social network and the head of Zinch China.
Some 80% of China’s university students are on Weibo and 42% use it every day, Krommenhoek said, comparing it to the US where only around a third of students use the social networking site Facebook and the popular Twitter microblogging network.
A forum for students
With international social media platforms Facebook and Twitter blocked in China, and with the country's large and dispersed population, Weibo is seen as a good way to reach out to students and break down the barrier of distance.
“Chinese students are an important part of the international student intake. A lot of universities are trying to reach Chinese students – and the best Chinese students,” noted Nick Pearce, a teaching fellow at the University of Durham’s Foundation Centre, who has been researching Weibo use by UK universities.
“One reason for UK universities to engage with Weibo is to provide a forum for students that they [students] may use with confidence,” rather than the more intimidating direct approach to universities, said Pearce. “And not just students, it may be parents – providing another way of getting in touch.”
According to Pearce, a survey at Durham has found that around 58% of 163 UK universities have a Weibo presence, and of these 41 have ‘verified’ accounts, which require the user's real name, although even verified accounts can be censored.
“We commissioned this survey not knowing which UK universities were on Weibo. It is a surprise to find that so many are,” Pearce told University World News.
There are also many unofficial university accounts run by alumni of UK, US and Australian universities who have returned to China, but these individual accounts are harder to track.
Low numbers of followers
The following for university accounts is still relatively low, though, averaging a few thousand. Just five UK universities have more than 5,000 followers on Weibo.
Among the most successful UK universities are Huddersfield and Central Lancashire, which have almost 30,500 and just under 25,500 followers respectively.
“It is clear that some universities are putting a great deal of effort into it – the more an institution uses this site, with different kinds of content, the more followers they get,” Pearce said.
Stephen Drysdale, who is responsible for the international marketing team at Huddersfield, said the university had an office in China run by an alumnus who operates the Weibo account. “Given that it is a fairly closed internet society in China, we work with him, giving whatever he needs in terms of information and pictures. But he drives it.”
Central Lancashire also said the university’s Weibo account was run by its office in China.
In Australia, Monash University is the most popular university account with more than 11,000 followers counted in August 2012. Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales have just half that number of followers each, using Chinese speaking staff and students to post on the university site.
Others such as Australian National University post information about their China research, rather than specifically targeting students.
Few US universities on Weibo
In the US, Zinch found very few US institutions with a Weibo presence – just over 62 of them, the majority with a very small number of followers. Only half have an active presence, regularly posting blogs and receiving responses.
“This compares with 90% [of US institutions] on Facebook and Twitter,” said Krommenhoek, who believes that the number of institutions outside China on Weibo “could at least double or even treble this year".
US institutions with the highest number of Weibo followers are Yale University with over 30,400 despite starting its Weibo account just a few weeks ago, and University of California, Berkeley with 11,740. The University of Michigan, which posts on Weibo around three times a day, has some 5,000 followers, according to statistics collated by Zinch.
Most other US institutions have a woeful Weibo following, numbering in the hundreds or even lower.
This compares to universities in China such as Fudan in Shanghai with more than 322,000 followers, Tsinghua in Beijing with 243,000, Wuhan with 228,500 and the University of Hong Kong with over 147,300. Some 700 Chinese universities have Weibo accounts.
An institution’s prestige and reputation abroad may be important, but is not the only factor. New York Film Academy has a fan base of more than 8,000 followers, which can be linked to its sponsorship of a China beauty pageant, and celebrity news.
“If you don’t have a ranking as a university, you need a steady and consistent stream of information for this audience. You need to be active,” Krommenhoek said.
However, Pearce noted that the follower count does not necessarily mean a great deal. “What a university should be looking at are enquiries, such as ‘What is the University of Durham like? How big is it?’ and so on. That is where the real interaction takes place.”
Durham is to conduct a 12-month pilot study this year to find out more details on the kind of interactions taking place between students in China and UK universities. It is clear that this could be valuable for the overseas student recruitment industry.
“In terms of recruitment, if you get even one more student from China, [engagement on Weibo] will have paid for itself,” Pearce said.
In July 2012 Zinch announced a partnership with Weibo to assist universities in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and Europe to open and manage ‘verified’ Weibo accounts.
A law published by the Beijing municipality in mid-December has made it compulsory for Beijing-based users to use their real names to set up accounts known as verified accounts, although even verified accounts can be censored.
“We know that students in China spend a lot of time online and using social media. Weibo and Renren are creating a viable channel for interaction,” Krommenhoek told University World News.
“If an institution has an active Facebook account, some of that communication can be repurposed for China. It can be curated and translated to make it applicable.”
Weibo has its limitations and it is not as effective as face-to-face communication, Krommenhoek admitted. But it is “one piece and one pillar in an overarching strategy for universities to attract students from China".
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