Chinese students choose a UK degree because of its prestige in the jobs market, but do not mind where in the country they study as long as it has "history and old buildings" as well as a welcoming culture, a new study suggests.
However, students also know that they are considered "cash cows", valued by foreign universities because of the high fees they pay, and are increasingly sceptical about whether they are receiving value for money.
The findings, which will be presented at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education Europe annual conference to be held in Glasgow next week, are drawn from the first survey conducted at a dedicated "student lab", set up in Hong Kong, to test the reactions of Chinese students who are considering applying to universities in the UK.
The study is part of a project by the consultancy Precedent to help universities understand what foreign applicants think of them.
A second study lab is due to be launched in New Delhi, India later this year.
The aim is to understand the motivations and experiences of students considering the UK as the international market grows increasingly competitive.
Paul Hoskins, managing director and founder of Precedent, said the consultancy would present the findings of the study at the conference as evidence that universities must focus their efforts on one or two geographical areas internationally, becoming experts in catering for students from that region rather than trying to tap into every market.
Students questioned as part of the project said the views of family and friends, as well as information found online - including the university's own marketing material - were the key influences in their decision-making.
But they also reported being forced to use local recruitment agents, who they felt were operating with their own agendas when advising them on where to study.
"Recruitment agents are rarely nice people, but students realise that they have to use them," Mr Hoskins said.
Most universities do not provide dedicated information for specific cultural or geographical groups of applicants, instead banding them together as "international".
Mr Hoskins argued that instead of expanding recruitment across the board, a more effective strategy would be to "develop a niche" in areas where universities already have strong links.
"That will enable you to build a long-term brand differentiation in that area," he said.
Universities should also gather tailored information from students, he advised, in order to develop a better understanding of their cultural needs when they arrive at the institution.
Mr Hoskins said that this extra effort would pay off for institutions not only in the short term, by contributing to a more targeted and effective recruitment strategy, but also in later years by creating committed alumni donors.