Main draws are quality of education, experiences beyond classroom
Chinese students are flocking to universities in the United Kingdom in record numbers as British educational institutions increase their overseas marketing efforts to secure funding amid Brexit worries.
A report by the lobbying body Universities UK International ahead of the new academic year found that nearly one in five overseas students at UK universities comes from China.
In the 2016-17 academic year, UK universities welcomed 95,090 Chinese students, by far the biggest international group. The second-biggest overseas group, from the United States, comprised 17,580 students.
Education sector experts said that thanks to the UK government and university strategies that are focused on China, the numbers are set to grow further.
In June, new measures took effect to simplify the student visa application process, especially for Chinese students.
Another new policy introduced this year allows graduates from 23 UK universities to apply for six-month post-study work visas. The ability to gain valuable work experience in the UK is very attractive for Chinese students and adds value to their resumes even if they return home to work over the longer term.
"Universities have been keen to attract Chinese and other international students in recent times because Brexit means many universities could lose research funding from European Union institutions," said Colin Chen, managing director of InterGreat Education Group, a consultancy in London.
For example, British universities receive about 15 percent of their funding from the European Commission's Horizon 2020 program, a research fund established to allocate 80 billion euros ($93.6 billion) to cutting-edge scientific research between 2014 and 2020.
The universities are anxiously waiting for Brexit negotiations to confirm if they are still eligible for this funding.
Faced with this pressure, the universities are increasingly investing in recruitment efforts in China, and establishing research partnerships with Chinese universities.
In recent years, more UK schools have been setting up campuses in China, effectively raising the profile of British education. Currently, 296 of the 661 international schools in China teach the British A-level curriculum to students, according to New-School Insight Media, a service platform in Beijing.
"Chinese students at these schools will, over time, develop a sense of familiarity with the UK, so the UK becomes a natural destination when choosing to study abroad," Chen said.
Gaining an internationally recognized degree, the opportunity to experience British culture, and developing an international perspective are among the top factors attracting Chinese students to the UK.
May Huang, CEO of UK Education Weekly, an education-focused Chinese language publication in London, said: "As China internationalizes, its demand for globally-minded talent has also grown. Therefore, many students want to study abroad to improve their employability, and to build up an international network of contacts who can help them in their careers."
The benefits of studying in the UK are being felt by many Chinese students.
Zhang Feng, a PhD student at the University of Greenwich, said: "I've never regretted my decision to study in Britain. It was my UK student experience that helped me to find what I wanted to do in life."
Zhang first went to the UK in 2013, when he was 23, for a one-year overseas experience during his undergraduate degree studies at Anhui University in Hefei, the provincial capital.
He planned to stay for just a year, but instead decided to remain for his master's and doctorate. Looking back, Zhang said the key benefits from his UK study experience were improving his English, critical thinking and research skills, and teamwork and leadership abilities.
Yan Feifei, a PhD student at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said the "incredibly high" academic standards in the UK pushed her to the limit.
"I was mentally prepared for a big workload, but I really did not realize how absolutely demanding my classes would be until I started," said Yan, who majors in comparative literature.
Every week, she has to read two novels and analyze notes on one poet. All this work equates to about 1,000 pages of reading.
Xu Shuning, a mathematics student at Imperial College London, said, "I have developed self-studying abilities, time management skills and communication skills with people from different backgrounds."
Behind the increase in outbound Chinese student numbers is the rising wealth of the country's middle class.
Huang said, "Overseas education used to be a luxury accessible only by the elite, but now it is common and easily achievable."
According to Education Ministry statistics, 544,500 Chinese studied abroad in the 2016-17 academic year, more than three times the 179,800 that sought education overseas in 2008.
The US dominates the Chinese outbound student market, followed by Australia and the UK. In the 2015-16 academic year, the US received 291,000 Chinese students, Australia 112,000 and the UK 91,215.
In addition to growing student numbers, Huang said new groups of Chinese students in the UK are also arriving in the country at younger ages, making more diverse degree choices.
The number of Chinese students applying for undergraduate degrees has grown faster than those applying for master's, and the numbers for arts and social sciences courses are rising faster than for the more historically popular business degrees.
"Arriving at a younger age often enables students to stay in the UK for longer and gain a fuller British student life experience," Huang said. "In comparison, those students coming to the UK for just one year to pursue a master's degree may find their experience quite rushed."
Whereas 10 years ago about 60 percent of Chinese students in the UK studied economics and business-related subjects, this proportion has dropped to about 40 percent in recent years. Traditionally less-popular subjects, including creative art and design, are now being studied by more students.
Huang said: "It is encouraging to see that Chinese students are making more varied choices of subjects. It shows that younger generations of Chinese students are perhaps more independent in their thinking and more informed about subject choices."
For British universities, Chinese and other international students provide a crucial source of income. A recent study by University College London's Centre for Global Higher Education found that overseas students add about 20 billion pounds ($25.54 billion) to the UK economy each year.
Jonathan Pitt, international partnerships and recruitment officer at St. Mary's University in London, said international students also contribute cultural diversity to British universities.
"Chinese students at our university act as a crucial bridge for our other students to better understand China," Pitt said. "We are also consciously building up our Chinese alumni network. Our Chinese alumni can help our efforts to strengthen our reputation in China, and that can open doors to new joint teaching and research partnership opportunities between us and Chinese universities."
Charles Cao Quin, deputy pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Leicester, said, "Chinese students' respect for teachers, their learning attitude and abilities are all qualities that can inspire and encourage their classmates."
Ding Shan, deputy general manager of the Walkite International Academy, an education company in London, said that despite the continued growth in numbers, recent terrorist attacks in the UK have worried some prospective students about choosing to study in the country.
"Chinese students and parents care very much about safety," said Ding, who provides advice about applying for UK universities.
Last year, attacks at Westminster Bridge, the Manchester Arena, London Bridge and a mosque in north London killed 36 people.
Ding said: "Recent events have perhaps made some students feel it is unsafe to live in the UK. Therefore, it is not surprising that some choose Australia over the UK, especially if they are looking to stay permanently to work after graduation."