While researching why Chinese students come to Europe for higher education, we encountered some tired and stereotypical views in our ethnographic conversations. Among some academic and administrative staff in UK universities, a few of the most common were contradictory: Chinese students are rich, they don’t care about studying and only want to party; they’re extremely academic and don’t want to spend time on other pursuits.
But we can challenge these stereotypes using data that is representative of the overall population of Chinese students in the UK. The Bright Futures project is the first representative sample survey of this group, and we also surveyed a comparable group of their peers in China. Our research for the project shows the very different reality from the stereotypes.
First, Chinese students in the UK aren’t all “rich”. Instead, they are from varied social backgrounds. In fact, over 30% of the undergraduate and masters students we surveyed did not have parents who were professionals or higher administrators. This proportion is broadly similar to the social class composition of UK higher education students overall.
Challenging the second stereotype, we found that the academic performance of Chinese students prior to coming to the UK to study was as varied as that of their peers in China. Students who come to the UK cover the full range, from high achievers to low scorers. As this mixed picture might suggest, while studying in the UK, they also expect a range of outcomes from their study in terms of final grades or degree classes.
Students’ backgrounds vary
While academically comparable to their peers at home, Chinese students in the UK are still a relatively select group in terms of parental background when compared to Chinese students in China. While 69% of Chinese students in the UK categorise their parents as a “professional” or “higher administrator”, only 24% of Chinese students in China do.
The more varied social class composition of the student body in China reflects two factors: the rapid expansion of higher education in China over the last 20 years, and the growing desire for higher education in China among students and parents.
Recent data from the China Family Panel Survey shows that 20% of parents would consider sending their children abroad for their education, and this perspective is shared across the spectrum of urban and rural locations, income and parental educational background (although it is certainly higher among those who’ve been to university themselves).
Given these parental aspirations, it it not surprising to find, as our survey did, that in coming to the UK, Chinese students are definitely seeking an excellent education. However, they do not see this as merely about building a CV, but also for prioritising goals such as “realising self worth”, “gaining new experiences” and “meeting people from different backgrounds”. These broader goals are shared by their UK peers, who we also surveyed as a control group for comparison. Overall, our study shows that Chinese students, like their UK peers, see higher education as a value in itself, not simply preparation for a career.
But our findings show that UK universities are missing out on supporting excellence in their recruitment policies in certain ways, both in terms of which students get places and what they study. For the first of these points, Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) data show a concentration of Chinese students in the UK in certain subjects, particularly business studies. This means that British universities are missing out by not recruiting students into other subjects, particularly science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
On the second point, universities may not be recruiting as many of the most excellent students as they might: 35% of respondents to our survey at top universities in China who had considered university overseas said the main factor in not taking this route was cost. Given the high fees UK institutions charge international students, and the lack of need or merit-based scholarships for non-UK and non-EU students, this is an obvious barrier.
Our study allows for detailed analysis of this group of students who make up a staggering 20% of the overall flow of globally-mobile higher education students. For the first time, it provides representative data that not only challenges stereotypes but also provides a window into the experience of these students and how they see their university education and their future.
Yasemin Soysal's work on the Bright Futures project has received funding from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Sophia Woodman's work on the Bright Futures project has received funding from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).