Chinese students are keen to study in the UK but want greater choices – is ‘HyFlex’ learning the future?

“As China begins to emerge from the pandemic, it is important to understand the future for UK China International Education”

Research commissioned by Study Group shows rebounding demand from Chinese students to broaden their horizons at UK higher education institutions. However, the study makes clear there won’t be a return to pre-Covid times – education providers will need to employ innovative approaches to unlock future opportunities, writes James Pitman, Study Group’s managing director UK and Europe.

Unlike the often-fragile relationship between countries and governments, education provides a unique opportunity for students worldwide build solid relationships in a supportive and open environment. Tertiary institutions in the UK have traditionally held high appeal for many Chinese students and their parents. With China representing a fifth of the world’s population and a rapidly growing economy, the UK and China have one of the world’s most important international education relationships.

As China begins to emerge from the pandemic, it is important to understand the future for UK China International Education. Our recent report surveying higher education experts, students and parents in China considers the challenges and potential for UK universities.

Post-pandemic prospects

Study Group’s report highlights several barriers currently preventing Chinese students from studying in the UK. Covid-19 has impacted test dates at IELTS test centres since there can be restrictions on their opening times in 2022.

Delayed exams have also come at a big expense and disruption for candidates who’ve already applied for the visa. Parents cited the cost of the IELTS tests as a potential barrier and the limited number of alternative English language tests.

Life with Covid means situations can evolve quickly, and IELTS centres may suspend tests at short notice. Cities and countries will likely continue to go back into lockdown as the virus mutates. In the face of such continuous change, agility and adaption will be critical requirements for the international education sector to futureproof itself.

New instructional approach welcomed

In a surprise to some perhaps, Chinese interviewees also said that online and blended learning provision, known as hybrid flexible or “HyFlex” learning, had been well received by parents and students. HyFlex is an instructional approach that combines face-to-face and online learning.

Although the course activities are fixed and set by the educator or institution, the flexible aspect allows students to decide how they participate and engage with the material in the mode most suited to their learning style. For example, a Chinese student may choose to take their pathway program at a local study centre which combines online and in-person classes, then take their first semester at a UK university entirely online before travelling to start their second semester on campus to study the remainder of their degree.

HyFlex learning offers an administratively easier, lower-cost option to prepare and qualify students for British universities. Students can stay at home rather than paying for a year of overseas tuition before university begins. The UK government supported this approach during the pandemic by allowing those on student visas to continue their studies remotely.

With the possibility of other Covid-19 variants emerging in the future, there’s a chance that the government will extend these relaxed rules. Our research found that at least 50% of pathway courses for Chinese students are currently being delivered 100% online, with at least another 25% partially online.

For the near and the long-term future, UK higher education providers will need to give Chinese students aspiring to study in the UK a greater choice in how they learn. These may include more online programs, more robust and blended hybrid courses, more short courses, or a more physical campus presence in China.

A better future through education

The report also offers some important pointers for the way ahead. With clear demand from Chinese students to study in the UK, it is imperative the UK higher education system breaks down barriers and generates greater choice to attract Chinese students to the UK.

HyFlex learning could very well be the answer for creating a more intuitive, flexible learning environment for Chinese students to study in the UK, but there is still more work to be done to further develop this international education relationship.

Having shared our insights into the rebounding demand from Chinese students, we’d be remiss not to reflect on the Higher Education Policy Institute’s recent report, calling for a greater focus on building China expertise within the UK’s higher education system. This latest report from Study Group offers insights which we hope will help fill in gaps in knowledge and offer guidance about what to do next.

About the author: James Pitman is Study Group’s Managing Director UK and Europe, as well as Chair of Exporting Education UK and Vice-Chair of Independent Higher Education. He was a founding advisor to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on International Students and sits on the newly formed Higher Education Sector Group.

For the full report on the future for U.K. China International Education see here.