We Are Social’s guest columnist, Federico Sferrazza from www.daxueconsulting.com, provides insight on what makes Chinese students want to study abroad, and why foreign universities must increase their local social media presence to attract them.

In recent years, Western universities looking to attract Chinese students have had to increase their efforts to develop a strong identity within the region. This is undoubtedly due to the rise of social media, which is ingrained in the daily lives of prospective Chinese students, and influences much of their decision making, from what clothes to buy to where they should study abroad.

Previously, information regarding foreign universities was harder to come by and depended only on league tables and word-of-mouth. However, these days Western universities have the opportunity to heavily influence potential students in China and build a strong ‘brand,’ based on factors outside of just academic records.

In this regard, the power of social media as a tool to draw large numbers of students from across the world cannot be underestimated. However, successfully wielding this tool requires understanding of local Chinese platforms, which can be an overwhelming prospect for universities who do not have relevant help in doing so.

This article will examine the reasons why such vast numbers of Chinese students choose to study abroad, and how universities can capitalize on this through methods such as strengthening their local social medial presence.

Popularity of Western universities for Chinese students 

Western universities have long-succeeded in enticing Chinese student to their campus’, with The Chinese Ministry of Education reporting 523,700 Chinese students studying abroad in 2015. Although this represents a new record, it is also the second consecutive year in which growth has fallen short of long-term averages, suggesting that the number of Chinese students going abroad seems to be stabilising. Given that China has long-been the world’s largest supplier of international students, we must ask ourselves why this is.

Why do Chinese students go overseas?

Firstly it is important to understand why Chinese students are attracted to the idea of studying abroad in the first place. While research suggests that Chinese students base university applications largely on ranking, other factors also influence their choices. For many Chinese students, studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience of living in and absorbing a foreign culture. Hence Chinese students also value the socio-cultural aspects of studying at a university in a foreign country.

These observations are consistent with in-depth market research on Chinese students who are studying or going to study abroad. One interviewee said “Chinese students are very career oriented and a brand name university stands out to employers. I always look at the school rankings for the majors I am interested in” (high school student preparing to study abroad). Another student focused on the possibility of full immersion into a foreign country: “I avoid schools with a large amount of Chinese students in order to really engage with the language” (incoming graduate at Drexel university).

Chinese students also consider post-study work opportunities when applying for a university. If there is an attractive job market and favourable visa-policies in the country the university is situated in, they may be more inclined to study there.

What platforms do Chinese students use to get information about universities abroad? 

Most mostly rely on search engines and social media to gather intelligence. As Google is blocked in China, they usually use Baidu instead. With respect to social media platforms, Chinese students rely heavily on Weibo and Wechat to gather info about universities abroad. Direct contact with regional offices in China or local recruiters is also a means by which Chinese students become aware of university programs abroad.

There are also several recruiting agencies in China, such as Beijing Overseas Student Service Association, China Overseas Study Alliance, and StudentMarketing. These agencies organize various events, such as student workshops, in order to attract Chinese students. They also offer counselling on how to recruit Chinese students.

What should universities abroad do to attract Chinese students? 

As Chinese students rely heavily on online resources to gather intelligence about different universities, a well-established online presence is needed to attract Chinese students. Hence universities should capitalise on digital marketing. As previously noted, Chinese students place great emphasis on the ranking of universities. This gives world-renowned universities such as Oxford and Harvard an advantage when competing with other universities for international students. Hence, top-ranking universities should leverage their ranking in order to attract students from China.

In this regard it is important to note that most top-ranking British universities do not have a presence on Weibo or Wechat, suggesting that large numbers of Chinese students are unaware or unsure about the advantages of studying in Britain. Hence, simply establishing a presence on Weibo and Wechat will undoubtedly generate high returns for many British universities.

In order to gain an online presence, universities can also create a presence in China via satellite campuses or global centres such as NYU-Shanghai or Columbia Beijing Global Centre. Universities should, on these online platforms, clearly communicate and promote their most recognised programmes.

Universities abroad should also build relationships with local international high schools in China. Moreover, universities should promote governments to arrange exchange programs at a high-school level, in order to attract Chinese students to the country in question. If the budget for recruiting Chinese students is limited, then a viable option might be to hire an agency to recruit on the university’s behalf.

Government policies for international students, such as tuition fees and visa regulations, as well as job prospects post-graduation in the country in question, also influences which university Chinese students choose. Therefore, universities should lobby for policies that make studying in the country more attractive. For instance, German universities have no tuition fees and students are allowed to stay 18 months after graduation to look for a job, which makes studying at German universities an attractive option. Hence, enhancement of post-study employment rights is likely to enhance the perceived attractiveness of studying abroad.

In conclusion, universities abroad should leverage the ranking, socio-cultural advantages and long-term economic benefits of studying at their university. Using online platforms – particularly Chinese social media – to communicate these benefits is likely to be effective, based on the educational priorities of prospective Chinese students, as well as their subjectivity to online influence.



Federico Sferrazza is a young professional with a master’s degree in law. He has been living in China for three years and he has experience in copywriting and marketing online. Happy to share his knowledge about marketing strategy and new trends in the Chinese market.