UCAS goes to China

A new report from UCAS and Pearson highlights the way recruitment from China is changing

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The tale of Chinese interest in studying in the UK is, on one level, a familiar one.

The popularity of the UK as a study destination has grown sharply over recent years. Students are attracted by prestige – both that of the whole sector, and that held by particular providers and courses. Chinese undergraduates tend also to stay for postgraduate work, but are less inclined to remain in the UK to work.

Today’s UCAS and Pearson briefing reinforces a lot of this accepted knowledge, but also highlights the way it is beginning to shift.

For instance, though it is still overwhelmingly the case that Chinese domiciled students apply to high tariff providers (a proxy for prestigious, selective, universities) the unexpected drop in numbers in 2023 affected these providers rather than the comparatively recent growth in medium and low tariff providers.

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This appears to reflect a subject area shift – the classic business courses are beginning to give way to provision in the performing arts and social sciences.

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The briefing offers a selection from UCAS’s extensive library of survey data, also drawing from other sources in the UK and China. Sadly, what is presented doesn’t quite answer these current questions. We do learn that, whatever the observed behaviours, it is actually the quality of teaching that is foremost in applicants minds.

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The traditional indicators – the league tables, earning potential (and for that matter the TEF) rank below personalised student reviews. Applicants also seem to be expressing an interest in course design considerations.

And it is worth noting that price sensitivity is not an issue. If you recall the beliefthat uncapped fees lead to an efficient market, it is striking how little attention is paid to that particular signal. Perhaps of more interest are the policy thumbs placed on these scales: the briefing notes last year’s decision by Shanghai authorities to offer “hukou” (a kind of citizenship permit offering access to higher quality services) to Chinese graduates from the top 100 universities in the world.

This is all data collected over multiple years, so we don’t quite get an answer to what is driving the current shift in behaviour, though given the growth in numbers we are likely to be over-representing recent applicants.

Parts of the sector have done very well in recruiting from China in recent years – but it is a competitive market. Global competition (notably from Canada, Australia, and the US) is picking up – and with current governments less interested in driving down immigration at any cost the alternatives may be looking increasingly attractive. The UK has the historic cachet, but pragmatism may end up winning out.

Read more on Wonkhe:

Nearly a year ago, Wonkhe went in-depth on UK higher education’s relationships between the UK and China, covering recruitment, collaboration, and security. You can read more in Wonkhe’s archive.

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