Foreign exchange

Competition for Chinese students is stiff, and Britain is in danger of losing its early advantage. Esther Oxford reports.

February 7, 2008

Imagine the entire populations of London and Birmingham, about 9 million people, applying for university, and it is possible to get some idea of the size of the current demand for higher education in China.

Now imagine 6.5 million of those who sat the entry exam being disappointed due to a lack of university places and it is possible to get some idea of the potential for higher education growth in China.

Incredibly, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The country is hastily building universities in a bid to meet demand, but there is little chance it will be able to keep pace. By 2020, some 20 million university places will be required, according to a 2003 report prepared for the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.

A shortage of places has led some Chinese students to hunt for universities abroad, and British institutions have been only too pleased to oblige. In the 2005-06 academic year, British universities recruited 50,755 Chinese students, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency - each paying an average fee of £8,000 a year.

That brings in £406 million a year to Britain - which increases to £800 million, if students' cost of living (averaged at £8,000 a year) is taken into account. That figure has the potential to grow to as much as £6 billion (inclusive of living costs) if Britain can persuade more Chinese students to come here to study, rather than to other Western countries.

The Chinese Ministry of Education says that at least 380,000 Chinese students - a figure that is likely to be both an underestimation of current activity and a poor indicator of future demand - are studying overseas. Britain is taking roughly a seventh of those students. Why not more?

In 2004-05, students from the China and Hong Kong made up 24.2 per cent of non-European graduates and undergraduates in Britain. By 2005-06, that figure had fallen to 22.8 per cent, according to figures released by Hesa.

Undergraduate figures show an even greater drop: between 2003 and 2006, the number of Chinese undergraduate students in Britain fell from 9,000 to 6,000, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

There are a number of reasons for the drop: the US, France, Germany, the Netherlands and some Scandinavian countries have elbowed into the marketplace - many of them offering English-language degrees for cost-effective tuition fees. Stiff competition from within China has added to the problem: the Chinese Government has created an extra 3.4 million university places in the past seven years, many of them in generously funded "elite" universities.

On a more practical level, Chinese students have been put off Britain because of a hike in student visa charges. In the wake of 9/11, the British Government introduced charges for international students to extend their visas - £250-£335 for applications by post and £500 for applications made in person at Public Enquiry Offices. This has not gone down well with Chinese students, who claim it has made them feel unwelcome.

The cumulative effect of these changes is that British universities are being obliged to come up with more subtle, collaborative ways of winning over the Chinese - a departure from the past.

According to Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield and chair of the Education and Skills Select Committee: "The Chinese are fed up with being seen as a convenient cash cow for higher education institutions in Britain. They want to be seen as a partnership of equals.

"I was told in no uncertain terms by the Chinese that they have plenty of money invested in higher education. Their formidable achievements in science and technology reflect this. And what they want is senior partnerships with elite universities around the world," Sheerman says.

Getting the marketing strategy right is the toughest part, and the University of Birmingham is well practised at it. "We've focused on building a partnership with China," says Andrea Edwards, director of international development. "We pulled back from attending recruitment exhibitions and focused our attention instead on developing undergraduate links. Our new approach is about developing new training programmes and hosting Chinese delegations in an effort to build a more collaborative approach. We want a mutually beneficial relationship of equals."

The approach has clearly worked: Birmingham occupies fourth place in the top ten UK universities for recruitment of Chinese students, according to Hesa figures. In 2005-06, Birmingham attracted 1,285 students from China, generating an income of more than £9 million for the university.

Tim Westlake, director of international development at the University of Manchester, also has reason to celebrate. His university is ranked second in Hesa's top ten.

Eastern accents
UK institutions with the greatest number of students from China and Hong Kong, 2005-06
University of Warwick1,480
University of Manchester1,460
Loughborough University1,375
University of Birmingham1,285
University of Hertfordshire1,285
University of Nottingham1,175
University of Central Lancashire1,090
University of Leeds985
University of Sunderland975
University of Sheffield950
Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency

"Our success is as much down to international relations as it is to do with recruitment," Westlake says. "We focus on partnership and collaboration, not numbers."

The university works with Manchester City Council to provide scholarships to some of China's most talented students and to encourage British students to learn Mandarin. It even has a Confucius Institute. All efforts are geared towards the buzzwords of "collaboration" and "long-term commitment". It helps that Manchester has Britain's largest Chinese community after London.

Other universities have focused on improving consumer relations, as well as partnership. Chris Backhouse, director of international strategy at Loughborough University, currently third in Hesa's top ten, says the key to Loughborough's success in recruiting Chinese students is its focus on quality.

"The market is there to stay if you can demonstrate that you are looking for the quality of student rather than just quantity of students. We've taken clear steps to improve the quality of our intake by insisting on tougher examinations in English language and ensuring that our student intake is all well qualified," Backhouse says.

Once the students have arrived in Loughborough, the university goes out of its way to make sure they have a positive experience (the university won a 2007 Times Higher Award for providing the best student experience to international students). "We have a Chinese officer on campus, and we are very committed to organising cross-cultural events and promoting cross-cultural relations," Backhouse says.

But much of the PR work is done in China. "Currently, we're setting up a new office in Tsinghua University - one of China's most prestigious institutions - to coincide with the Olympics," Backhouse says. "For us, good relations is about offering expertise in the fields of policy, science and sport. It's about collaborating and working with the Chinese to help them achieve their goals."

Other universities have tried different tacks. "We have a 'customer care' approach to keeping students happy," says Steve Rawlings, international project manager at the University of Central Lancashire, which is ranked seventh in Hesa's top ten. "Our aim is to provide a seamless approach to student information, advice and guidance.

"We have permanent staff both in the UK and in China whose job is to give our Chinese students support. They are there from the point of inquiry, through the visa application phase, to the moment the students arrive in the UK. Once the students have arrived in the UK, we have an officer to meet them - and to support them throughout their stay," Rawlings says.

The encouraging news for British universities is that more than 80 per cent of students in China say they want to study abroad, according to a recent online survey by the China Youth Daily. The paper's poll of 2,400 students found that 42 per cent believed an overseas education would help their career and 66 per cent thought those with a foreign education stood a better chance in job hunting than those from domestic universities.

And China - to its credit - has been doing its best to make it easier for foreign universities to work with its students. British universities increased their market share for delivery of degrees in mainland China from 5 per cent to 31 per cent between 2004 and 2005, according to educational consultancy firm Global Opportunities for UK Higher Education. This level of activity places the UK well in front of Australia and the US.

Britain has also opened two universities in China - one run by the University of Liverpool, the other owned by the University of Nottingham. The Chinese appear to have encouraged these two British universities to settle in China in the interests of long-term international relations, rather than need. The British need to reciprocate this gesture of goodwill. This is not a time to indulge in a "cash cow" short-termism.

As many in UK higher education now realise, it is a time for laying down solid foundations for long-term, and mutually beneficial, collaborations.


UK institutions with the greatest number of students from China and Hong Kong, 2005-06.

University of Warwick: 1,480

University of Manchester: 1,460

Loughborough University: 1,375

University of Birmingham: 1,285

University of Hertfordshire: 1,285

University of Nottingham: 1,175

University of Central Lancashire: 1,090

University of Leeds: 985

University of Sunderland: 975

University of Sheffield: 950

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency.

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