UK universities’ Chinese student recruitment ‘getting harder’

Latest figures show Chinese application numbers back on trend, but caution sounded on headwinds and ‘super-dependence’

February 19, 2024

UK universities have been warned that vital recruitment of Chinese students is “getting harder” as their “super-dependency” on this flow takes them “into new territory in terms of financial risk”, even though latest figures indicate Chinese numbers are back on track with long-term trends after a dip last year.

Ucas figures on applications to UK universities for 2024-25 by the January deadline showed an increase from China of 3 per cent, or 910 students, compared with 2023, when numbers fell by 4.2 per cent on the previous year.

Although only a minority of overseas students apply via Ucas, the trend will reassure UK universities, forced to increase international student income to offset real-terms cuts in home student funding while other institutional costs have risen sharply during a period of high inflation, with China in particular key for many.

Mark Corver, managing director of data and analytics at the consultancy dataHE, said that numbers for both 18-year-old entrants from China last year and for applicants this year, though showing “some weakness compared with other years”, were “still on track with the decade-long trend”.

“The data is not signalling – yet – anything dramatic has changed for this flow, despite increasing awareness of the [disruptive] potential of geopolitical differences,” he added.

However, Dr Corver also noted that “one very striking aspect of this demand from China is the high and increasing focus on a small set of very selective research-intensive universities such as the Russell Group”, where Chinese students account for “probably around 25 per cent” of institutions’ total undergraduate and postgraduate fee income.

“It is clear that this type of exposure to higher fee [overseas] students and those from China in particular has taken these universities into new territory in terms of financial risk,” he continued.

UK universities “love students from China” given their general tendency to be “low maintenance” on recruitment, visas, paying their fees and completion of courses, said Vincenzo Raimo, an independent international higher education consultant and a visiting fellow at the University of Reading, where he was previously pro vice-chancellor for global engagement.

“But recruitment from China is getting harder for all UK universities for a number of reasons,” he added.

These factors include the fact that Chinese students are “highly incentivised by the state to study in so-called top-100 world universities”, of which there are increasing numbers closer to home in China and east Asia more broadly, Mr Raimo said.

Chinese students’ families “are also increasingly becoming cost conscious and looking for value for money – both in terms of costs of study and employability back home – and the UK is increasingly seen as an expensive option, especially compared with those closer to home options”, he continued.

Meanwhile, UK universities “lower down the rankings”, which have traditionally recruited well from China, “are now also facing competition from closer to home as higher ranked [UK] universities are increasingly playing on their turf, being more flexible on admission requirements, and entering the direct entry market”, said Mr Raimo.

The UK’s “top-ranked universities will, at least in the short term, continue to recruit very well and the majority of their international students from China both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels”, he went on. “Those lower down the rankings will, however, increasingly have to look elsewhere for their international students.”

Dr Corver said of reliance on Chinese student recruitment: “It is hard to believe that individual universities choose this path to super-dependency because they thought it was a good idea in isolation. These dependencies and risks are yet another example of the distortion brought about by the heavily suppressed funding levels for home students.”

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