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For colleges and universities struggling to meet enrolment goals, the rise in international student mobility couldn’t have come at a better time. In response to pressures due to shifting demographics, intense competition, decreased government funding and other factors, a majority of schools have made proactive efforts to increase international recruitment – and seen considerable success. In the United States, the total number of international students grew 72% from 2000 to 2014, with other countries experiencing similar gains.

student mobility international recruitment

China has been the undisputed driver of global student mobility growth over the past few decades, with a total of 1.26 million students overseas in 2015, accounting for 1 in 4 international students. This includes undergraduate, graduate and an increasing number of younger students – a recent survey found that the proportion of Chinese students seeking high school education overseas jumped from 17% in 2012 to 27% last year. Nearly a third (31%) of the one million international students in US higher education institutions come from China. However, while the total number of outbound students continues to rise, slowing growth rates and the evolving Chinese market are cautionary signs for institutions to not get complacent.

universities chinese student recruitment

As international student recruitment plays an increasingly important role in enrolment strategies, schools risk becoming overly reliant on particular markets. Admissions officers who remember that Iran in the 1970s and then Japan in the 90s were once the largest sources of international students will recognize how quickly things can change. Although the volume of Chinese students abroad is still huge and rising, the sector is already changing. For example, while Chinese enrolment in US graduate programs fell by 1% in 2014 as more scholars pursue postgraduate work and research domestically, enrolment in US high schools leaped 30% last year.

Adapting Chinese Recruitment Strategies to Emerging Trends

Developing a nuanced understanding of emerging geopolitical, demographic and economic trends in key markets can help schools adapt their recruitment strategies appropriately. China is currently the world’s largest trading nation, responsible for one-third of global growth in the past decade, during which time the number of households earning over $35,000 increased from 6 million to 27 million. According to last year’s Hurun Report, the number of Chinese billionaires jumped an incredible 70% over the previous year.

At the same time, many China analysts warn that debt is rising twice as fast as growth in the country, which could suggest an impending economic slowdown. Devaluations in the Chinese stock market and currency during the last few years signal questionable stability in 2017, though drastic change seems unlikely.

Demographics is the more predictable change on the horizon. According to the United Nations Population Division, the number of Chinese people aged 18 to 23 is expected to decline by a fifth between 2015 and 2020, then stabilize until 2040 and drop another fifth by 2050. Rising wealth and the high value placed on foreign education has so far more than offset demographic declines, but the growing strength of China’s own higher education system, the mixed experiences of those returning from abroad, and potential political interference make the future uncertain.

student mobility growth china

China has massively expanded its number of domestic university places since 2000, growing at the equivalent of about one university each week, and “at current rates of higher education growth and demographic transition, there will be a university seat for every child in China by 2030,” according to a report released by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education last year. China is already the most popular host country in Asia for international students and aims to host half a million students by 2020.

Significant investments in its higher education system appear to be paying off – it has the most improved system since 2013 according to the annual Universitas 21 ranking. Last year, Tsinghua University became the first ever Chinese institution to reach the top 20 in the influential Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, with Peking University close behind at number 21. A record nine Chinese universities made the top 100, demonstrating the nation’s increasing competitiveness on the world education stage. In 2016, China became the leading host for international branch campuses and it opened its first overseas campus in Malaysia.

Analyzing the Perceived Value of Foreign Degrees for Chinese Prospects

Despite these internationalization trends, the perceived value of a foreign degree could be eroded by political rhetoric and diminishing returns of graduates returning home. Xi Jinping’s presidency has ushered in stricter authoritarianism, with reports surfacing of proposed bans on the promotion of “Western values” in textbooks and reduced English language preparatory curricula for studying abroad. US admissions officers are concerned that hostile relations with President Trump could have serious consequences, to the benefit of countries like Canada, which has simplified access to visas, work and permanent residency for international students.

The gap between the number of students going abroad and those returning home has narrowed in recent years, but the rapid increase in foreign degree-holders has forced more than 60% to take entry-level jobs, which a majority aren’t content with. This oversupply has led some to label these haigui (sea turtles, returning to their place of birth) as haidai (seaweed), according to Chinese economic magazine Caixin.

China student recruitment

Addressing this widening disconnect between expectations and actual experience should be a pressing concern for admissions teams. A recent article in Forbes reported that while international student enrolment increased 56% from 2007 to 2014, the average financial contribution per student increased from about $25,000 to $31,300. The article suggests these price increases without commensurate investment in services risks schools pricing themselves beyond market demand.

George Burke, who has been involved in international higher education for over 40 years, has noticed a troubling trend in institutions developing a short-term view to international admissions at the expense of true integration and sustainability:

“In the early years, international students were either key to scientific research or an added plus. But very few US universities had a comprehensive integrated approach to international education and international students. For many schools, it has now become a way to offset declining US domestic high school populations and balance their budgets; the importance of integration and diversity is lost. Recruitment is to meet enrolment and economic goals.”

Challenges with Integration of Chinese Students

The lure of Chinese revenue has resulted in differentiated tuition rates and, according to higher ed consultant Rahul Choudaha, “a whole industry of test prep, admissions consulting and recruitment agents” designed to “package” applications so they’re admissible to universities. A study by Zinch China estimated that 90% of Chinese university applicants forged recommendations, 70% submitted personal essays written by others, and 50% forged their high-school academic transcripts.

The most conspicuous example of this type of careless recruitment has been found in South Korea, where Chinese students represent a vast majority of the international student body at most universities and the education ministry has pushed for maximum foreign student intake without ensuring adequate quality assurance. Insufficient admission standards and student support services has led to high dropout rates, grudges against these irresponsible policies and even anti-Korean sentiment.

Chinese students often arrive in the West lacking appropriate English levels and with completely different communication styles and cultural assumptions. Reports of outstanding Chinese students struggling in American universities has attracted widespread anxiety in China where schooling abroad is a significant investment. Most Chinese students abroad spend an average of $200,000 for just tuition and fees in the US over 4 years, not counting the thousands for accommodation, TOEFL and SAT classes, international secondary schools for American curriculum, and round-trip flights.

china student recruitment marketing

Increased instances of academic dishonesty, low levels of class involvement, and self-segregation have been identified as factors limiting the success of Chinese students. Inadequate language proficiency is the most pervasive challenge for Chinese students struggling to express their ideas in the more participatory Western education system, resulting in self-consciousness and reduced confidence for young people already under significant stress. Cultural barriers and academic difficulties often lead to emotional issues and sticking together with other Chinese students as their only real support system.

Strategies for Student Integration and Retention

While some institutions move to diversify their international student body beyond dependence on China, others are taking steps to improve their recruitment and retention practices, integration and career preparation. Sustainable international enrolment requires a holistic view of the student experience and prioritizing reliable outcome metrics above the focus on inputs (number of students).

Establishing the essential infrastructure of orientation, support services and faculty training to integrate Chinese students could include:

  • Addressing typical adjustment challenges in redesigned orientation programs
  • Developing connections to local student “ambassadors” for initial settling in and bilingual counsellors for ongoing concerns
  • Providing cross-cultural training for faculty, academic advisors, staff and students
  • Establishing dedicated language support services
  • Tracking student performance to address potential issues proactively

The University of Delaware is one of many schools to accept students based on academic credentials on the condition that they meet language requirements through co-curricular “cohort” programs. Students expand their linguistic confidence and cultural engagement through experiential learning, community service and reflective writing in small multicultural groups. Effectively assimilating Chinese students on campus is no small challenge but schools that do create these support services and opportunities for interaction can yield greater retention, student success and positive word-of-mouth, which will encourage a steadier flow of Chinese students in the longer term.

Example: Many colleges and universities establish conditional acceptance agreements with ESL language schools like English Studies Institute to develop the necessary communication and social skills for success.

esi student integration

Example: The University of Toronto offers a pathway admissions program called Green Path that has helped new Chinese students overcome culture shock and adapt to life in Canada through a 12-week summer experience before conditional acceptance to undergraduate studies. While ‘GPers’ naturally grow tight-knit, instructors constantly urge them to break out of their bubble to integrate with other students.

university toronto pathway program

Expanding Opportunities for Student Recruitment in China

Despite the many cautionary signs and persistent challenges, China clearly remains enormously important for student recruitment, with many untapped regions existing in smaller cities, a wealth of scholarship opportunities, and growing interest in new segments. A diversifying economy and burgeoning middle class is increasingly seeing the value of educational pursuits of personal interest besides the traditionally popular STEM and business subjects. Schools could emphasize the wide range of majors offered in studies abroad, recognizing that Chinese students are having greater choice in their own education.

In the past few years, arts-focused Falmouth University has greatly increased their recruitment efforts in China and doubled their application intake this year. Applicants and their families are expressing that they see “huge scope” for the creative industries to “sustain a very credible career,” says senior deputy vice-chancellor Geoff Smith.

Career colleges have also been largely neglected in the past because in China they are the only option for particularly poor performance on the gaokao, a much dreaded standardized exam that’s a pre-requisite for higher education in the country. At the China Education Expo in Beijing, recruiters like Yan Wu of Sheridan College share personal stories about how work experience and applied communication skills acquired through a college education “are the best fit when students are new to Canada.”

College recruiters may have an uphill battle when convincing parents, but they can explain that college tends to be a quicker route to a job, which is needed for permanent resident status in Canada, and credits can count towards a university degree. More and more students are choosing to complete their first postsecondary years at more affordable college options, then transferring to a university for the desired degree.

Example: Conestoga College has developed a range of customized content for Chinese applicants and their families on their website and established agreements with higher education institutions in China. It offers a growing number of international exchange opportunities for both students and faculty, signifying long-term relationship-building with China and other nations.

college marketing student china

Recommendations for Expanding Chinese Student Recruitment

An effective international recruitment strategy should begin with an honest and thorough examination of present and past activities, consulting with admissions and analytics data, Chinese students and alumni, and other internal resources to develop potential paths forward. Look for ways you can shift resources towards growth areas, considering emerging geopolitical and economic trends as well as your school’s unique offerings that might appeal to prospects in China.

A well-conceived and comprehensive digital marketing strategy demonstrably delivers the best possible Return on Investment (ROI) but it can be taken even further with a Chinese-speaking admissions administrator with a good knowledge of the market, online and social media trends. Some schools complement their efforts by employing agents but adequate oversight is necessary to ensure they’re indeed acting in your best interests. Correlate the academic performance and experiences of your Chinese students with their sending agencies to help determine who to continue relationships with.

It’s estimated that 10,000 registered and unregistered student recruitment agents are operating throughout China, with the three largest agencies accounting for about 30% of the market. As their channels and connections mature with increasing demand, they are becoming more and more expensive. There is also the question of finding reliable quality.

hem weibo china recruitment student

Concordia University in Montreal ended relations with Orchard Consultants following an internal investigation into its recruiting practices and homestay program after a report surfaced about poor conditions experienced by Chinese students. “The emphasis is really on getting closer to the student applicants, and I think the general perspective was that we shouldn’t be over-relying on the service providers to be doing that,” said Roger Côté, Concordia VP Services.

While agents can play a persuasive role in the decision making process for families with little knowledge of study abroad options, increasingly informed prospective students may use their opinions merely as references, or more likely to assist with applications and student visas. Online information continues to gain importance in supplementing or replacing agent input, with more and more students/families enrolling directly via a school’s digital resources.

Tailoring Digital Marketing Messaging for Chinese Prospects

Most schools by now have dedicated sections of their website for international students, including many with well crafted Mandarin content specifically for Chinese prospects. Aim to continuously improve these sections according to the latest marketing research, focusing your messaging by keeping in mind the primary concerns of Chinese families. As parents play a major role in school choice, future career opportunities and employment outcomes tend to be the first questions asked so be sure to include reliable evidence based on current data.

Rankings or other indicators of education quality can be powerful persuasion, and families will also want assurance about the safety of your campus, city and country. Other popular elements to include are information about Chinese student groups and clubs, co-op opportunities, restaurants and grocery options, climate, transportation and general campus life – videos are helpful explanation tools. Specific advice about registration, checking in for housing and arriving from the airport will be appreciated. Schools like McGill University have PDF viewbooks created especially for Chinese prospects.

mcgill university viewbook chinese student marketing

Optimizing your digital marketing for the Chinese market involves additional unique steps, such as adding a local name server to improve page inclusion rate on search engines like Baidu. In our blog on social media marketing in China, we include best practices for setting up official accounts on platforms like QQ and WeChat. As YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China, schools should post videos on YouKu and consider developing a presence on microblogging platform Sino Weibo.

Accessing Chinese Prospects Through WeChat

The most ubiquitous site for Chinese student prospects is WeChat, which has similar functions to Facebook and WhatsApp, but also private groups, video and phone calling, and monetary transactions. For higher education marketing, besides being a platform for consistent content sharing to expand your organic reach it offers opportunities for one-to-one communication, advertising and even in-app tuition payments. You can tailor advertising to specific demographics with increasing options for in-feed placements (in a ‘Moments’ feature, similar to Facebook), directing prospects to a dedicated Chinese microsite or a landing page that triggers an email drip marketing campaign.

Worth investigating are user groups or channels formed around particular interests, such as Circle of Moms (WeChat ID: USAmamaquan), which had 150,000 followers as of August 2016, consisting mostly of mothers in tier 1 cities seeking American education opportunities for their children. Joining groups like this or targeting with advertising directed to a parental audience are a great way to develop awareness and interest in your school. Institutions like the Naveen Jindal School of Management use WeChat to connect with alumni who have returned to China.

wechat china social media marketing

Cross-platform promotion of your WeChat is essential, promoting your QR code in all online and offline marketing material including all links and tag info on your webpage for SEO benefits, to enable Chinese prospects to easily follow you. Establish a strategic content plan and consistent times to respond to messages, featuring in-country events, student testimonials, videos and infographics.

Improving Return on Investment on International Digital Marketing

With so many possible regions and marketing initiatives to pursue, a nuanced approach to measuring ROI is important to ensure your recruitment efforts justify the allocated resources. Rather than just counting the number of applications or enrolments, attempt to measure both hard and soft returns, such as brand awareness and reputation, understanding the nature of varied inputs at multiple points along the student recruitment funnel.

analytics china marketing education

Web analytics should be implemented with a focus on the Chinese market, defining website goals and key performance metrics to configure Baidu webmaster tools and establish regular reporting and A/B testing. As this is admittedly complex, it’s recommended to at least get started with the help of a marketing agency with the expertise to set up and manage your official Chinese online presence.

HEM recently launched a comprehensive suite of customizable Chinese digital marketing packages for schools actively seeking to navigate this unfamiliar market with data-driven initiatives. Available services include:

  • Creating and managing your own microsite, including full CMS setup and .cn domain name registration, up to 15 pages of fully translated content, keyword research and on-page Baidu optimization
  • Web analytics implementation for the Chinese market, including configuration, Baidu setup and tools, monthly KPI reporting, optional A/B testing and ongoing recommendations for improvement
  • Geo-targeted Chinese language Pay-per-click lead generation
  • Full service inbound marketing with detailed persona development and targeting, regular blogs in Mandarin, WeChat account setup, and ongoing social media marketing and support on several platforms


China is a fascinating market full of both immense potential and uncertainty. Attracting just a small proportion of the half million students studying abroad each year can create significant improvements in enrolment and campus diversity. The better you understand the numerous intricacies of Chinese student recruitment and retention, the better you can create a sustainable enrolment strategy with measurable progress toward your school’s goals.

How does your school plan to adapt its digital marketing in China in 2017?