Chinese international student recruitment during the COVID-19 crisis: Education agents’ practices and reflections

Research Highlighted:

Report: Chinese international student recruitment during the COVID-19 crisis: education agents’ practices and reflections, 2020, University of Manchester.

The COVID-19 crisis has generated severe challenges for UK universities. One particular challenge is the impact the pandemic has had on the plans for incoming Chinese international students, who make up a significant proportion of UK universities’ annual tuition fee income (HESA, 2020). At present, there is an urgent need to understand the perspectives of current and prospective Chinese international students in regards to their studies in the UK. One method for gauging these perspectives is through the reflections of education agents. While there is no systematically compiled data about how many students in China use education agents, it is clear that the use of agents is widespread (Raimo, Humfrey and Huang, 2014). Moreover, Universities UK (2016) reports education agents have become the most important influence over Chinese students’ choice of postgraduate taught programmes in the UK. Therefore, understanding the practices of education agents during the COVID-19 crisis is essential to support international student recruitment from China for UK higher education institutions. 

In the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 between 1May and 15 May, we conducted the research with the aims to explore the reflections of education agents in China who have been working with applicants, offer holders and enrolled students for overseas programmes about the issues of studying abroad during the COVID-19 crisis. The research methods used included online interviews and open-ended questionnaires, which allowed us to evaluate the in-depth experiences of agents during this period. In doing so, the project illuminates the experiences of agents during this crisis and provide suggestions for UK higher education institutions to develop their plans for post-COVID teaching through the following research questions:

This research also contributes to UK higher education institutions’ further understanding of the role of education agents as well as future students’ needs and concerns during the COVID-19 crisis, thereby building an effective communication channel with students and making practical plans for adjustments.

Education agents are organizations and/or individuals who provide a range of services in exchange for a fee from their service users, which include overseas higher education institutions and/or students who will study or are studying abroad. There are wide variations in China regarding the types of education agencies, services provided by agents, and roles of education agents (See Section 2). The research outlined in this report focuses specifically on what Chinese applicants who use agents to apply for overseas programmes thought about studying abroad during the COVID-19 crisis. The research demonstrates the experiences of agents during this period and provides suggestions for UK higher education institutions to develop their plans for post-COVID teaching and student support. The findings are based on qualitative data collected from 19 agent consultants at 16 different agencies in China. Using a thematic analysis, five key themes were identified: 1) the groups of students who approached agents during COVID-19; 2) agents’ timelines during COVID-19; 3) Chinese applicants’ questions about the UK, 4) agents’ sources of information, and 5) prospective students’ plans. These are enumerated in Section 5.

During the COVID-19 crisis, education agents in China undertook a wide range of activities, including counselling, application preparation, and supporting students who had concerns about studying abroad. Their work focussed on encouraging offer holders to make informed decisions about studying in the UK and transmitting information about changing university policies and practices. Applicants and their parents expressed a range of significant concerns about studying in the UK to their education agents. The UK remains one of the most attractive destinations for Chinese applicants, and they are reluctant to change their decisions, but are anxious about a number of issues. The questions most frequently posed to education agents from Chinese applicants were related to: 1) English language tests, 2) pre-sessional language and academic skills preparation courses, 3) safety in the UK, 4) the format of delivery of courses for the upcoming academic year, 5) Tier 4 student visa applications and 6) tuition fees.

Confronted with a surge in the volume of inquiries, education agents relied on several key sources of information: channels of UK university representatives, their internal working groups, universities’ websites, and official accounts on social media platforms. These enquiries vary, according to which of three groups students belong to: 1) students who are studying in the UK; 2) students who apply for British postgraduate taught programmes commencing in September 2020; and 3) students who apply for the programmes in the spring term 2021. Normally, education agents go through a business cycle with new client consultations peaking in summer, and ongoing processing casework peaking towards the end of the year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted this. Education agents served as an intermediary between applicants and UK universities to answer students’ questions. Based on agents’ responses, Chinese student applicants carefully considered certain issues during the COVID-19 crisis, including their intention of studying in the UK, the new policies of UK universities, contacts between prospective students and UK universities as well as the potential of a largely online delivery of their courses.

In summary, based on information from education agents, this report identifies eight points to support developing UK universities’ plans for post-COVID19 teaching, student support and Chinese student recruitment (Section 6).

According to education agents in China, UK Universities are advised to:

  1. Improve communication with education agents and applicants about their subsequent plans.
  2. Update and release an explicit plan for the 2020-2021 academic year as soon as possible.
  3. Defer the opening date of programmes to ensure that international students will be able to take on-campus face-to-face courses in a safe and healthy environment.
  4. Consider offering flexible start options.
  5. Consider reducing tuition fees for courses delivered fully or partially online.
  6. Develop students’ overall experience in addition to learning provision.
  7. Enhance recruitment activities and build up connections with potential applicants in the longer term.
  8. Develop or strengthen connections with education agents in China.

Authors

Ying Yang is a PhD researcher at the Manchester Institute of Education. Her PhD research is looking at the role of education agents in the marketisation of British postgraduate taught programmes in China’s market. Ying also has professional experience working as an education agent and in higher education in China. She can be contacted via ying.yang-3@manchester.ac.uk and Twitter: @YingYan16771006.

Jenna Mittelmeier is Lecturer in International Education in the Manchester Institute of Education at The University of Manchester. Her area of research expertise focuses on international students’ transition experiences and broader aspects of internationalisation in higher education. Jenna has led and contributed to a range of research projects related to internationalisation, including funded projects from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), British Council, British Academy, Education Commission, and the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE). Her work was recently awarded the Paul Webley Award for Innovation in International Education from the UKCISA. In her teaching capacity, she coordinates research methods training for MA students and is the departmental coordinator for PhD researchers in Education. She can be contacted via jenna.mittelmeier@manchester.ac.uk and Twitter: @JLMittelmeier.

Miguel Antonio Lim is Lecturer in Education, Co-Research Coordinator, and Co-Convenor of the Higher Education Research network at the Manchester Institute of Education at the University of Manchester. His research interests include internationalisation of higher education, East Asian and transnational higher education, university rankings and performance metrics. Previously, he was EU-Marie Curie Fellow at Aarhus University, Denmark, and task force leader on migration and higher education at the EU-Marie Curie Alumni Association. He has worked and taught at Sciences Po-Paris, the London School of Economics (LSE), and University College London (UCL). From 2010-2012, he was the Executive Director of the Global Public Policy Network Secretariat. He can be contacted via miguelantonio.lim@manchester.ac.uk and Twitter: @miguel_a_lim.

Sylvie Lomer is Lecturer in Policy and Practice and founding co-convener of the Higher Education Research Network HERE@Manchester in the Institute for Education at the University of Manchester. An established researcher in international higher education studies, and critical higher education policy, her book is entitled Recruiting international students in higher education: Rationales and representations in British policy from Palgrave Macmillan. An HEA Fellow with 10 years of teaching experience with international students in UK higher education, she has published on national branding of UK higher education and policy analysis, and is currently researching pedagogies of internationalisation in higher education, and international postgraduate employability. Read internationalisationinhighereducation.wordpress.com. She can be contacted via ylvie.lomer@manchester.ac.uk and Twitter: @SE_Lomer.

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