Slow and steady recovery for China, as employability key and new destinations emerge

The Chinese outbound market is making a slow and steady recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, with Asian destinations making gains but traditional destinations still dominant, and employability becoming a major factor in the decision-making process, according to a recent industry panel.

June 19, 2024 Studytravel Magazine

In the Recruiting students from China webinar, industry research company Bonard presented data trends on the Chinese market for the higher education, ELT and K-12 sectors, and then invited insights from Mingze Sang, President of Chinese agency association BOSSA; Rona Wu, Manager of the Global Partnership Centre at Chinese agency Shinyway International ; and Joshua Gabriel, Senior Programme Manager at the British Council  China.

Recovery: Mingze said that the market was returning in China and that after around 80 per cent recovery in 2023, he was optimistic of a return to pre-Covid levels this year.

Rona agreed that the market has increased over last year and is getting better but said that recovery has been very slow. Joshua said he expected incremental growth, particularly for undergraduate programmes.

Changes in popular destinations 2019-2023 for Chinese students. Source - Bonard.

Destinations: For higher education, the USA remains the top destination for Chinese students but had only returned to around 78 per cent of pre-pandemic levels as of 2022. Meanwhile, the UK has grown to take second position, ahead of Australia and Japan, and had already surpassed pre-Covid numbers in 2022.

Looking at rates of recovery in enrolments of Chinese students in higher education in 2022, Hong Kong was the only other destination to surpass 2019, while Germany and France had both reached around 90 per cent recovery. Australia (86), Japan (83) and Canada (81) were further behind.

However, for ELT enrolments the UK fell from first for Chinese students in 2019 to third last year, while Australia and Canada gained to take first and second place respectively. Su Su, Senior Project Consultant at Bonard’s China branch said that ELT is the most changeable of the sectors due to short-term decisions, providing opportunities and challenges for providers.

China had slipped from being the world’s largest ELT source country in 2019 to fourth largest in 2023 but Su said, “We have reasons to believe that it has the potential to go back to first place”. English UK ’s most recent quarterly data cited China as the largest year-on-year growth market in 2024 Q1.

In the K-12 school segment, Canada and the USA have retained their pre-eminent positions as the top source destinations, although the UK has overtaken Australia into third.

Analysing the latest government data on student visa issuance, Bonard said that Australia has stalled in the first quarter of 2024 after strong growth last year, while Canada increased, despite the announcement of caps for post-secondary study below master’s level in January. The USA also remains steady after a 36 per cent increase in visas issued in 2023.

Looking at visa grants, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the USA all had very high acceptance rates of close to 100 per cent for Chinese student visa applications over recent years, but Canada’s grant rate has declined since the pandemic to around 80 per cent. “With China’s visa approval rates being consistently high, competition in the market is increasing,” said Patrik Pavlacic, Chief Intelligence Officer at Bonard.

China has lost its position as the largest ELT source country. Source - Bonard

Alternative destinations: Su highlighted that as well as the growth for Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia were more often being mentioned as higher education destinations. Applications to Malaysia more than doubled between 2019 and 2023 to around 26,000, she said, although full enrolment data is not available. Singapore is also emerging as a popular destination for junior camps.

Mingze said that Asian destinations have risen in popularity in recent years due to lower costs, proximity and similarity of cultures, but they shouldn't impact the rest of the industry too much, particularly with limited capacity to host international students in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Employability: Su explained that “the so-called Return-On-Investment is a term I hear mentioned more and more by parents and students when planning overseas studies. Parents will consider affordability and employability when choosing a school and will appreciate internship opportunities in local companies.”

Singapore has become a more popular destination in recent years for Chinese students.

More than 80 per cent of Chinese international students seek employment in China after completing a degree abroad, according to Ministry of Education data.

Rona explained that Chinese students face a very competitive job market when they return home, and said, “Employability prospects are the main reason for them to choose a university.” Mingze added that the purpose of education is often for students to get a good job, so educators need to think how they can help them in this.

Other factors: Mingze commented that costs can sway decisions at every stage of the process. “Scholarships may help, and they always affect the final decision, when students have the offer,” he said. However, he also observed that at the beginning of the planning process, students will consider other aspects, such as tuition fees and cost of living, when choosing their destination.

Joshua added that along with the key push on employability, economic conditions and diplomatic relations with destination countries were other trends shaping mobility.

Safety, cost of living and QS university rankings were other factors cited in the discussion.

Advice to educators: Joshua spoke of the need for institutions to invest in travel and meet agents in person. He also urged educators to respond promptly to agent and student enquiries, invest more in digital marketing, provide an enhanced welcome package for students, and to expand out to Tier 2 and 3 cities.

Rona similarly urged schools to provide a good service to agents and take the time to select good agency partners, given the size of the market. She also suggested on brand building in the Chinese market through advertising and presence, especially in smaller cities.

The Chinese outbound market is experiencing a steady but slow recovery.

Mingze recommended that institutions should be very clear on their strengths, such as cost, ranking, facilities, or entry requirements, for example, before deciding on how to promote those in the Chinese market. Social media campaigns need to stand out in a competitive field, he said.

As Su explained, “China is a big country; people in different regions have different preferences. Parents and students can be strongly influenced by what is promoted.”

Fruitful partnerships with institutions are also something that agents in China appreciate. “I always hear from agencies that programmes are replaceable, but partnerships are not,” Su said. However, she also warned that “agents have a lot of choice, so they are always careful when choosing their partners.”

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