Boomtime forecast for Chinese applicants to UK HE by 2030

A predicted 50,000 Chinese students will apply to undergraduate courses at United Kingdom universities by 2030, with nearly half of those getting accepted on a programme, according to research findings presented to the 2022 International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) hosted by Universities UK International (UUKi) on 17 March 2022.

The forecast comes in a new report from the Australian-based software company, Sinorbis, titled The Next Boom: How UK universities can benefit from growing Chinese international student demand.

It is based on market trends, population growth of teenagers in China and the increasing popularity of the UK as a study destination for Chinese students compared with its traditional main rivals of Australia and the United States.

24,000 Chinese entrants by 2030

The report says its prediction of 24,000 first-year entrants on to undergraduate courses at UK universities would mean “a staggering 70% increase from 14,000 Chinese students who were accepted into programmes in 2021”.

The forecast is based on analysing raw data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) end of cycle and deadline releases and United Nations population data for China and looking at trends over the past five years regarding where potential study abroad Chinese students are looking to study.

The research was carried out by British-based dataHE for Sinorbis.

Sinorbis has operations in both Sydney and the UK and helps education and businesses engage digitally with Chinese markets.

Jeremy Phillips, who manages its UK partnerships, told the UUKi conference that after years of decline, China’s teenage population was growing and there would be 5% more 18- and 19-year-olds in China by 2030.

He predicted that if market trends continue and there is no unforeseen major geopolitical disruption to UK-China relations, the number of Chinese students coming to the UK to study in the 17- to 25-year-old age group will rise from one in 1,200 at the moment to one in 700 by 2030.

“The UK can look forward to 10,000 more Chinese students coming to study at UK universities by 2030,” he said.

‘Get in front of 16 year olds’

For those institutions wanting to grow their Chinese student numbers, Desmond Kohn, head of partnerships at Sinorbis in Sydney in Australia, told the IHEF conference it was vital to get in front of students and their parents at a much earlier age.

“Chinese students are now planning their study journey much further in advance and it is not going to cut it doing a recruitment drive three months prior to admission. They are starting to look at where to study, with their parents, when they are 16 years old.”

He said digital channels are the obvious answer, but it is vital to understand what works and what doesn’t and understand what your university’s presence in China looks like and what kind of content you prioritise.

While rankings were still used by many students and parents to narrow down their choice of potential study abroad university destinations, largely because they were one of the few independent reference points easily available in China, other softer factors were now playing a much more important role in the decision-making process.

Not just about rankings

“Of course, rankings are still important, but there are many other factors being considered such as admission criteria and safety concerns and employment opportunities post-study,” Kohn said.

He said he often got asked about using TikTok and other digital channels to reach young people in China and answered: “Yes, these are very helpful, but ultimately the foundations of what you need for China are website and WeChat (instant messaging and social app). If you don’t have those two things set up, you are invisible for starters.”

He said while optimising Chinese search engines was easier said than done, “having a good Chinese website is critical because you want to engage with 16 year olds and their parents for up to two years. It is a long, drawn-out process and it all starts with a digital search”.

“Recruiting agents are important, but they are for later, and agents are selling many universities and thinking about their commission. So, you want to have brand awareness first,” he added.

Kohn said Chinese students have “an unbelievable acceptance rate” and urged universities to make sure they are reaching the best students and were ready to answer last minute questions, such as what are the alternatives to the expensive student accommodation being offered to them. “That can make a big difference to where they will end up studying.”

UK has taken a firm lead

The new report from Sinorbis and dataHE says that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK was on track to become the most popular overseas study destination for Chinese students, and since the pandemic it has taken a firm lead, according to their surveys of Chinese students.

While recommending UK universities don’t become complacent, the report says that “the UK’s relatively speedy vaccination rollout is well perceived in China” and that Chinese students are concerned about “a host country’s friendly relationship with China”, which has worked in the UK’s favour and against major rival study destinations, especially the United States and Australia.

During the debate following the presentation by Sinorbis, delegates asked about HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) data showing 83% of Chinese students studying at the top-ranking Russell Group universities in the UK.

Andrew Hargreaves, co-founder of dataHE, said that, due to the firewall restricting internet access in China, rankings were one of the few readily available information sources about the relative quality of different universities abroad.

“However, it is interesting that five of the top UK universities for recruiting Chinese students are outside the Russell Group. What are they doing to be so successful? That’s what you should be asking,” he suggested.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.