The Future of Digital Student Recruitment in China
Higher Education Marketing

The Future of Digital Student Recruitment in China

Date posted: November 7, 2018

digital marketing in China

If you are working in the education sector, you will be well aware of the importance of China. Long established as the world’s largest market for international recruitment, the country has provided a steady flow of qualified, capable students to universities, language schools, k-12 schools, and other kinds of institutions around the world for many years.

However, as the global market continues to evolve, so too does the educational and digital landscape of China, and the tactics required to achieve continuing success there. Schools have to remain up to date with the latest trends and happenings in China’s unique online ecosystem, economic factors that might influence student decision-making, and the international policies and developments that might influence the flow of Chinese applicants.

Can schools look forward to more or less recruitment opportunities in China in the coming years? What does the current playing field of the Chinese internet look like? And how can schools gain more visibility online? Keep reading to learn more about the changing face of digital student recruitment in China.

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The Current Digital Marketing Landscape in China

The launch of the Golden Shield Project – commonly known as The Great Firewall of China – in 2009 saw the banning of many popular global websites and apps, and a resulting period of flux for the Chinese internet, as domestic alternatives attempted to fill the gap. Because the new market was somewhat less mature than the global environment, it underwent much more change in the ensuing years, with sites like early Chinese social network RenRen becoming popular, only to quickly be replaced by superior competitors and all but disappear.

In the past few years, however, a kind of stability has emerged in the Chinese market, with the country’s biggest online players Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu and Sina – often referred to as ‘BATS’ – consolidating their market power. This newfound stability makes it somewhat easier for schools to approach international student recruitment in China with a clearer idea of which channels and sites will drive growth.

In search, Baidu still very much leads the way, with over 68% percent of the overall market, although alternatives such as Qihoo 360 Search and Sougou do offer their own advantages.  The latter, in particular, is the only search engine that can show results from Tencent’s social media app WeChat. Schools looking to improve their results in Chinese organic search should prioritize developing Chinese language content, localizing their web hosting and domain name, and developing a simple, easy-to-follow architecture for easier SEO indexing.

Example: A typical Baidu search results page. The site’s format is reassuringly similar to Google.

international student recruitment in China

In paid advertising, meanwhile, one area which has shown huge growth is mobile news feed ads. Offered by a range of platforms, this format has become increasingly preferred by both brands and consumers as a non-intrusive form of online promotion.  A recent report from iResearch predicts that ad spend in this area will grow by over fifty percent in the next year alone:

recruit students in China

Source: KoMarketing

Baidu, in particular, has seen massive success with news feed ads, which have helped to drive huge profit growth for the company over the past year. The ads, which appear in Baidu’s personalized news feed app, are driven by AI to better target interested users. Tencent-owned social apps like WeChat and QQ also offer their own versions of news feed ads, while another player to watch out for is Toutiao, a news aggregation app which boasts over 100 million daily users.

Example: An illustration of different news feed ads in Toutiao. Note how the ads blend quite seamlessly into other results.

student recruitment ads in China

Source: Netizen Natives

Social media marketing in China, at least in the wealthier regions, is now very much dominated by two sites: Sina Weibo and WeChat. The former is similar to Twitter, offering a microblogging platform that allows users to create short text posts, photos and videos, and follow others to keep track of the latest trends. Weibo has long been one of the most receptive Chinese sites to content from western brands, and is a favourite for many schools looking to recruit students from China. The site also has a fairly advanced advertising platform, with numerous formatting and targeting options available.

Example: The Weibo homepage of the University of New South Wales.

Weibo for student recruitment in China

However, there are signs that Weibo’s popularity is dwindling, with the aforementioned Toutiao haemorrhaging some of its market share, so much so that the former accused the latter of illegally copying its content last year.

WeChat, on the other hand, is very much going from strength to strength. Encompassing instant messaging, social networking, ecommerce, and even gaming and online dating into a single platform, it is really more of a suite of different apps than a single one. The platform’s incredible functionality has seen it amass over 980 million monthly active users, eclipsing the country’s former most popular social and messaging platform QQ – which is also a Tencent app, and essentially an older, less sophisticated version of WeChat, though it still has over 800 million monthly active users.

There are many ways schools can effectively leverage WeChat for student recruitment.  The app offers a comprehensive ads suite, a social media feed known as WeChat Moments, and numerous features within its IM platform which can be used to engage students. Most significantly, this includes a number of automated tools, such as customized link menus and auto reply options.

Example: Dorset College integrates a customized menu on its WeChat IM screen for prospective Chinese students. The buttons at the bottom offer an introduction, campus information and a Q&A. Automated messages are sent to users depending on what they click.

college student recruitment China

One area of the Chinese internet which schools may find becoming more important is video. Over the past couple of years, online video consumption has grown significantly in the country, with a recent WeChat Social Commerce Report released by Youzan and Newrank showing that it now accounts for 18% of total mobile browsing time, an increase of 7% on the previous year:

recruit Chinese students

Source: WalktheChat

The most popular video sites in China include Youku, which functions as something of a hybrid of YouTube and Netflix, offering both user-generated and premium licensed content. The site has over 580 million users. It may also be worth keeping an eye on a number of sites which specialize in sharing micro video and livestreaming content, such as Meipei, Miaopai, Yizhibo, and Kuaishou.

Example: The homepage of livestreaming site Yizhibo.

international student recruitment

These smaller sites may come to threaten the dominance of larger, more established platforms as time moves on, and while they do not currently offer much in the way of student recruitment opportunities, this may well change as the sites mature. Conversely, their popularity may lead the likes of WeChat to focus more on livestreaming and video – much as Facebook and Instagram did in order to ward of the threat of Snapchat – in a bid to consolidate their position.  

Opportunities and Challenges in Chinese Student Recruitment

While international student mobility from China continues to grow fairly steadily year over year in most markets, many in the education sector are rightly concerned about the prospect of it finally reaching its peak and then declining in the coming years. Such is the importance of the Chinese student recruitment market, and its exponential growth, that this scenario could have huge consequences for institutions that have come to rely heavily on the country to meet enrollment targets.

Indeed, World Bank data cited in a Universities UK report last year shows that the college aged population of China will decline significantly by 2025:

chinese student recruitment

Source: Universities UK

Coupled with the fact that more and more schools are making inroads into the Chinese market, institutions of all kinds could face a future with far more competition for far fewer students. 

However, there is a chance that this decline will be offset by another major shift in the market conditions: the growth of the Chinese middle class. In the past, the majority of Chinese students studying overseas came from wealthier and upper class families, as they were the only ones with sufficient resources. As the middle class has grown, though, international education has become a far more obtainable reality for those outside of the elite. With the cost of domestic education in China also rising, this means that international study is both more accessible and attractive for this demographic.

At the ICEF Beijing Workshop in 2017, Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (BOSSA) Director Peng Sang detailed the increase in students from families outside the traditional Chinese upper class seeking education abroad:

student recruitment china

Source: ICEF Monitor

On a more macro level, China’s incredibly rapid urbanisation may also contribute to increased demand in the future. The Brookings Institution’s 2018 Global Metro Monitor report, which tracks the growth of urban centres, found that 103 of the world’s largest metropolitan economies were now in China. In 2014, there were fewer than 50. Growth in per capita GDP in these cities was also significantly higher than global averages:

china student recruitment

Source: The Brookings Institution

This has also contributed to economic growth and migration shifting away from the country’s two largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, which Brookings classified as its two ‘Giants’, towards other cities which it categorizes as “Anchor’, ‘Service’, ‘Rust Belt’, or ‘Industry’, depending on the city’s primary economic drivers.

recruitment in China

Among these, Brookings makes particular mention of cities with prospering tech sectors as being neatly poised to benefit from the changing landscape. These include Hangzhou, where internet giant Alibaba is headquarted, and Shenzhen, which is home to Tencent and Huawei among other companies, and has been dubbed ‘the Silicon Valley of China’.

Further to that, schools could look to Brookings classifications as a starting point to identify some of the opportunities that may be available to them should they choose to target lower tier cities. As an illustration, this handy chart from Business West offers an overview of 8 second tier cities and the main sectors with high business growth potential:

Chinese recruitment

Source: Business West

While this information is targeted towards organizations interested in exporting, schools who offer programs related to these fields could find targeting these cities very fruitful, as the growing urban population in these areas seek the skills they need to survive in these new economies.

Chinese Students are Seeking Out a More Diverse Range of Study Destinations

Another point which was raised by BOSSA’s Peng Sang during the aforementioned ICEF Workshop was the increased diversification of preferred study destinations among Chinese students. He pointed to growth in Asia particularly, citing Japan as a specific example, where enrollment of Chinese students has increased by 12% over the past year. Destinations in Europe are also gaining traction, including Russia, Germany, and France.

Example: Osnabrück University in Germany offers information for incoming Chinese students on its website.

international students in China

The increased variety of study destinations may be somewhat linked to a growing number of lower income families looking for education abroad, as they will naturally seek out different, more affordable options.

Changing policies may also play a role. For instance, the United States recently restricted F-1 visas for Chinese students studying in certain areas to one year (although they can apply to renew on a yearly basis), where previously they had been allowed five years. Pertinently, the fields affected include high growth sectors like robotics and technology, which could create huge opportunities for schools in other countries.  

When considering possible study destinations for Chinese students in the future, it’s also important not to leave out one increasingly popular choice: China itself. As its economy has grown and its population has become more educated, the country has taken a number of steps to make its own domestic study options more competitive. The government has put considerable investment behind its so-called ‘C9’ universities- Tsinghua University, Peking University, Fudan University, Zhejiang University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Nanjing University, University of Science and Technology of China, Wuhan University, Sun Yat-Sen University, and Tongji University.

These leading institutions were part of China’s ‘World Class 2.0’ project launched in 2015, which aimed to propel all nine into the world’s top 15 universities by 2030. While they are not there yet, they have made some headway, with 6 of these institutions named in QS’s Global World University Rankings top 100 this year, the highest amount ever for the country.  Should this upward trend continue, staying home may become a more prestigious option for domestic students, while China itself may increase its popularity as an international study destination.

Example: The University of Science and Technology of China – one of the country’s C9 schools – posted this blog on the English version of its website about a welcome event for its international students. Top Chinese schools like this are expected to become increasingly active in the international market.

chinese student recruitment

More Chinese International Students are Returning Home After Graduation

Another major shift in the mindset of Chinese students over the last few years relates to their ambitions after they finish their studies. While having opportunities to remain in their destination country and work after graduation is still important to many, a growing number of Chinese international graduates are returning to their homeland after earning their qualifications.

The Chinese government reports that 544,500 international students returned to China in 2016, in comparison to just 186,200 in 2011 – an increase of 132 percent. This is perhaps not surprising; the Chinese economy continues to grow and offer better income and opportunities for skilled workers, and it’s natural that international students will see these advantages and look to use their global knowledge and expertise in this attractive marketplace.

Tellingly, one of the hottest sectors for returning graduates is applied sciences, which would include the tech sector. This area accounts for up to 15.5% of returnees according to recent survey from the Centre for China and Globalization, although business-focused graduates were actually the highest in number:

china recruitment

Source: CCG

For schools, this means a reconfiguring of student recruitment messaging for Chinese students might be in order. Where once the focus may have been on post-graduation visas or job possibilities, it may now be necessary to do some research into what your Chinese students’ qualifications can help them achieve in China itself. Focusing your recruitment efforts on sectors which are growing in China, like tech, may also prove fruitful.

Example: The University of Alberta highlights its research partnerships with Chinese universities and official bodies on its websites in areas like energy, technology, and health. This could serve to convince Chinese students that the school is respected and well-known in their country, making it a good tactic for attracting those who wish to return home after graduation.

recruit chinese students abroad

In addition, it may become more important to be mindful of the challenges an international Chinese student is likely to face upon their return home. While many overseas students find that their global perspectives, language skills, and prestigious education helps them to secure work, the CCG survey also noted a number of areas in which they feel at a disadvantage, including unfamiliarity with the jobs market, a lack of a professional network, and even difficulty reintegrating with their own culture.

Offering students support and guidance in these areas, and convincing them that the positives outweigh the negatives may be crucial to success. If you have a network of Chinese alumni graduates will have access to, or any students who have returned home and gotten prestigious positions, highlighting them may be beneficial.

Example: Central Washington University created a blog post about its first ever event for alumni in China, which was attended by 130 graduates. Demonstrating that these networks exist for Chinese students could become increasingly important.

china student recruitment blog

As much as the outlook and conditions in the country will continue to evolve, it is clear that investing in digital student recruitment in China will remain important for years to come. Being mindful of developments in both the education sector and the digital world will help your school to take advantage of new opportunities, adapt to challenges, and continue to grow its presence in the Chinese market.

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