What factors will keep Chinese students coming to the UK?

Recently The Guardian put the spotlight on China’s 11.6 million graduates who face a job market with no jobs. This will also affect Chinese graduates with international qualifications.

China is a major source country for the United Kingdom’s taught masters programmes. The UK’s reliance on China has raised some concerns over its sustainability. The Office for Students recently wrote to 23 universities with high numbers of Chinese students to ask for their contingency planning in case of a sudden interruption to overseas recruitment due to a changing geopolitical environment.

In 2021 and 2022, 151,690 Chinese students were studying at UK higher education institutions, making up 27% of all non-EU students in the sector.

With some UK universities trying to de-risk their heavy reliance on China, we also need to ask whether Chinese students will continue to come.

Push and pull factors

To understand the major pull factors for Chinese students coming to the UK, whether there have been changes in the past 20 years, and how this can help to predict the future, we carried out a qualitative research study, using a push-pull factor to explore students’ motivations and narratives.

Two groups of Chinese students, 10 in each, who graduated from UK university postgraduate-taught programmes in either 2000 or 2020 were invited to answer a common set of three written interview questions:

• What made you decide to take a postgraduate programme in the UK? Please share the considerations you and your family had at the time.

• How did you evaluate the programme you took? How has this prepared you for employment?

• Would you recommend the same kind of UK programmes to your Chinese relatives today? Why or why not?

The data obtained were subjected to a rigorous thematic analysis. The data from the 2000 cohort were analysed first through an open-ended, bottom-up approach to determine the most important reasons behind these 10 Chinese students’ decisions to study in the UK around the turn of the century.

When analysing the data from the second group of the 10 Chinese students who graduated around 2020, the four major themes and pull factors identified from the first group were used as a coding scheme in order to determine if there were changes for each pull factor after 20 years. The same coding process was conducted and the frequency of each theme’s appearance was also recorded for comparison.

Push factors

China’s economy has maintained a good growth rate over the past four decades. In the next 10 years, an average annual growth of 4.5% is predicted in the Chinese economy. This is a slower rate than before, but it is still good news for international education.

The Chinese population is projected to decline in the future, after peaking before 2025, but this negative effect might be cancelled out by an education culture that will continue to serve as a positive push factor.

Though the differential funding for higher education in China has improved the quality and ranking of a few top Chinese universities, a large number of provincial universities are still underfunded. This unbalanced development means the Chinese higher education system is a highly competitive one for students. It is still relatively easier for Chinese students to enter a well-ranked university in the UK than a top university in China, according to the participants in our study.

Lastly, the ‘boring lecture style’ (in the words of one participant) of teaching in Chinese universities is still a push factor for Chinese students and, with China’s active engagement with the rest of the world, international and intercultural experiences are still very much valued by Chinese society, creating an employment advantage for returnees.

Pull factors

Firstly, the 20 Chinese graduates in this study, 20 years apart, all recommend UK postgraduate programmes without reservation.

We also looked at the difference between the group in 2000 and in 2020. When it comes to the reputation of UK higher education, this was a pull factor for seven of the 10 students from 2000, but just three of the 10 students from 2020, with lower ranked universities’ pull power declining in particular.

Nevertheless, students from 2020 were more likely to list shorter, cheaper and less competitive courses as a pull factor than those from 2000 (seven in 10 cited this compared to six in 10 from 2000).

2020 students were also more likely to say that the pedagogical approaches of the UK were a pull factor (cited by eight) than those from 2000 (just five said this was a pull factor) and they appreciated the intercultural learning and work opportunities more (seven cited these, compared to four in the year 2000 group).

The study therefore shows the overall reputation of UK higher education has declined over the last 20 years, with Chinese students tending to choose the United States as their first choice for STEM subjects, while Canada, Australia and Hong Kong are also desirable study-abroad options for Chinese students.

However, an important pull factor identified by Chinese students in this study is UK universities’ pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. The Socratic method practised in UK universities that focuses on student-centred, question-based and experiential learning is a highly attractive pull factor for Chinese students.

Another strong pull factor that will remain in the future is the English language, still a hot commodity in China. One participant also mentioned that the ‘gentleman’s culture’ in the UK was attractive to Chinese students and their parents, and that, hopefully, this culture would continue in the UK.

Lastly, Chinese students continue to enjoy the intercultural learning opportunities provided by a highly multicultural environment in the UK. All of these pull factors are likely to continue to exist in the UK higher education system for the foreseeable future.

What does the future hold?

Will Chinese students continue to come to study in the UK? The answer to that question is yes. But are there things that international education professionals in the UK should worry about? Are there issues that may challenge the sustainability of international education in the UK? There seem to be a few, based on the findings of this study.

The reputation of UK higher education has figured less importantly as a pull factor for Chinese students among the 2020 cohort of graduates compared with the 2000 cohort. Though this is a small sample, this finding is consistent with the general picture of UK universities’ rankings sliding and Chinese universities’ rankings improving in the past 20 years.

With reputation as a less important pull factor, Chinese students are more attracted to one-year masters programmes in the UK as a shorter, easier and less expensive way to meet the Chinese job market demand.

The Socratic pedagogical approaches adopted in teaching will continue to be a strong pull factor, but this approach often requires smaller classes and more instructor engagement with students.

Finally, it is important to note that none of the 10 Chinese graduates from the 2020 cohort cited post-graduation work experience and employment opportunities as a pull factor, particularly in the context of the recent debate in the UK on international student and immigration policy. However, the competitiveness of the job market in China means that some postgraduates from UK universities will still find it challenging to find suitable employment in China.

The tough job market in China will only drive more students to pursue postgraduate qualifications internationally where ranking will continue to play a determining role in decision-making. At the same time, this may also drive a new cycle of competitiveness when it comes to doctoral degrees.

Cheryl Yu is an international higher education practitioner and researcher.