‘Urgent need’ for UK to better understand Chinese student needs

Universities should increase communication with education agents, especially over Covid fears, says working paper

August 1, 2020
Chinese student
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Education agents are playing an outsized role in Chinese student decision-making, especially given the uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a working paper by University of Manchester researchers.

The four authors, including a former Chinese agent who moved to the UK, said there was an “urgent need” for UK universities to better understand the concerns of Chinese students, and recommended that greater communication with agents was one way to achieve that.

Ying Yang, a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester, told Times Higher Education that she drew on her own background as a former education consultant. “My work experience really helped me to think about some educational issues and exchange ideas with peers and lecturers,” she said.

Ms Yang said that agents, many of whom had studied overseas themselves, shared their “life experiences” with clients. They are a crucial source of information for Chinese students and parents about Western institutions. Beyond simply processing applications and visas, they advise on food, housing, travel and other aspects of overseas life.

As Covid-19 infections rose this spring, agents were increasingly asked about disease control, even by students already in the UK who were trying to procure face masks and flights home. “It was unusual [for agents] to have such frequent contact with their students currently studying in the UK, which highlights the levels of uncertainty experienced by current students during this period,” the authors wrote.

Chinese applicants were concerned whether the UK “was taking strong enough measures to contain the pandemic compared with the actions that were taken by the Chinese government”, while reports of xenophobic attacks also caused alarm.

Consultants at 16 agencies in China, surveyed in May, said that most Chinese students already admitted to UK programmes this September were likely to proceed, although these plans were not yet firm. “This optimism is contingent upon continued perceived public safety, fair treatment, and transparency from universities,” they wrote. Meanwhile, there has been a “significant decrease” in applicants for the 2021-22 academic year.

The Manchester report recommends that UK universities clarify plans for the 2020-21 school year and offer flexibility on opening dates so that overseas students can safely attend face-to-face teaching.

Miguel Antonio Lim, one of the report’s authors, told THE that “UK universities need to be very clear about what students can expect if they come to study in the coming academic year. They should also communicate very carefully about what measures are being taken to ensure the safety of students both from Covid and potential social violence.”

“Universities should be brave enough to adjust their timetables and even to advise students to postpone their studies if they are unable to ensure students’ safety,” he added.

China is the largest provider of international students to the UK. A THE analysis suggested that, before the pandemic, Chinese student fees were worth about £1.7 billion a year. The British Council predicted in June that decreased university enrolments from East Asia could cost the UK £463 million in spending on tuition and living expenses.

The question most frequently asked by Chinese students was actually about English, particularly standardised testing such as the International English Language Testing System and pre-sessional language courses, both of which were disrupted by closures.

The other top concerns were about disease control and safety, online courses and Tier 4 visas. Geopolitics did not seem to be a big factor. If anything, the UK was seen as an “ideal country”, given greater tensions with the US and Australia, and disturbances in Hong Kong.

Chinese applicants also seemed unwilling to pay full fees for online-only instruction in a country halfway around the world. “Applicants emphasised the importance of having an experience abroad, often characterised by experiencing local cultures and gaining new intercultural skills. They did not wish to simply receive an overseas credential,” the report said.

“It is a bit absurd that you never step out of the door but achieve an overseas credential in the end, isn’t it?” one interviewee asked. 

Given what he called “overwhelming concern” about a potential drop in revenues, Dr Lim said that it was “easy to overlook [Chinese students’] significant contributions to cultural life and research vitality in the UK and other leading host countries”.
 
As an international student herself, Ms Yang offered advice for those thinking of heading to the UK. “During this time of uncertainty, it is more necessary to think seriously about what you intend to achieve from study abroad and make an informed decision,” she said. “Studying abroad is a big thing and may become a life-changing opportunity.”

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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