Photograph of three young Chinese people
What will our role be when the world no longer looks West? Photo ©

British Council

October 2017

Insight looks at the latest research on the attitudes of Chinese young people towards the UK, and the implications for the huge but changing Chinese demand for British education.

Over the past decade, the number of Chinese students enrolled on UK higher education courses has nearly doubled to 98,000, with their direct spending on tuition and living expenses contributing £2.55 billion annually to the UK economy. They are generally happy to pay full tuition and, when their studies conclude, the overwhelming majority want to return to China’s booming economy to pursue their careers. From the Treasury to the Home Office to the taxpayer, it’s hard not to like this arrangement. 

Over the past decade, the number of Chinese students enrolled on UK higher education courses has nearly doubled to 98,000, with their direct spending on tuition and living expenses contributing £2.55 billion annually to the UK economy

But as we ponder the UK’s image after Brexit, it would be useful to know exactly what China thinks of us and how that might be changing. Over the past 18 months the British Council has tried to answer these questions through a survey of 5,000 respondents and analysis of nearly 9 million social media posts, looking at Chinese preferences for foreign culture and how that relates to their preferences for overseas study the full report can be downloaded here

Our dividends and liabilities 

The good news first: Our research subjects showed a high level of interest in UK culture and see it in a favourable light. Among survey respondents, the UK was the third-most likely to be rated among the top two countries in terms of culture. People who said they were interested in the historical or traditional aspects of culture were particularly drawn to the UK. Perceptions of UK education were even more positive, with 37 per cent of students who said they definitely want to study abroad ranking the UK among their top two choices. While it trailed the US in volume of social media buzz about education, the UK had the highest proportion of positive posts among all the study destinations we tracked. 

Yet challenges to the UK reputation also emerged in the research. Respondents noted the UK’s excellence in science and innovation but tended to see the US and Germany as relatively stronger. When respondents were asked to describe the people of the UK in a single word, ‘conservative’, ‘boring’ and ‘exclusive’ emerged among the most popular answers. While history and tradition are still strong selling points for the UK, it’s clear that our communication of other cultural aspects needs a refresh.

The research also showed a striking generational shift in cultural preferences; whereas older respondents tended to prefer Western countries, younger respondents showed greater interest in neighbouring Asian countries, particularly Korea and Japan. This is part of a broader trend of integration among Asia’s developed economies and the gradual dissolution of historical tensions that have impeded intraregional exchanges. What will our role be when the world no longer looks West?

Finally, although our research shows that the UK punches far above its weight in terms of initial interest for overseas study, there is a clear mismatch between this early-stage interest and actual student flows, with Australia and Canada performing far better in reality than our indicators of perceptions would suggest. While a lot of factors could be at play here, the UK has at least one obvious policy disadvantage: all of the major competitor destinations have much more attractive post-study work pathways. Whether students actually take up the opportunity – analysis of US and Australian data suggests few actually do – options are important ‘window-dressing’ when students are comparing study destinations.

Infographic from report
Interest in key study destinations vs. actual market share

After the gold rush

The dynamics of the relationship are now changing. China has a rising number of quality domestic institutions and the intense competition for university seats is starting to ease as China’s youth population recedes

Ten years ago China was a relatively easy market for universities to engage with. Rapid economic growth and the large gap between demand for higher education and quality local provision created “gold rush” environment for international education. Any university with relatively strong ranking or reputation could attract quality students just by opening its doors. But the dynamics of the relationship are now changing. China has a rising number of quality domestic institutions and the intense competition for university seats is starting to ease as China’s youth population recedes. More challengers are also emerging in the market as competitor study destinations redouble their efforts to attract students.

Our research shows that the UK has cultural dividends that will continue to support our engagement with China well into ‘the Asian century’. While the China market is expected to change considerably over the next decade, with slowing growth in the number of students going abroad and more aggressive competition from other study destinations, the UK’s cultural dividends and reputation for excellence in education put it on firm footing for continued success in one of the world’s largest and most dynamic markets. 

But at the same time, the world and the UK’s role in it is clearly changing. As Asia rises in wealth and influence, we will need to work harder to share our cultural strengths, to understand how they are perceived abroad and to continue to build strong institutional relationships with China and other rising powers. Cultural influence – unlike the clearly defined political influence of empire – changes slowly. Sometimes so slowly that we can’t see the shift until it is too late. At minimum, we must prepare ourselves for a world in which our influence is no longer a foregone conclusion and our global role will depend on our ability to collaborate, build mutually beneficial partnerships and communicate the best of the UK. 

Matt Durnin, British Council Head of Research, East Asia

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