A UK degree in the UK or in China? Exploring Chinese students experiences and motivations
“Many education providers have started to think about alternative ways to allow their international students to receive in-person support and experience a physical learning environment”
The Covid-19 pandemic has posed important challenges but also proposed new opportunities and solutions to international education.
Most students worldwide have had to spend most of the past two years studying remotely, which has raised pressing questions about value for money, in particular for international students, and about the quality of the student experience.
In addition to the near universal pivot to online learning, many education providers have started to think about alternative ways to allow their international students to receive in-person support and experience a physical learning environment. Providers with transnational education operations have for example been able to leverage their international outposts for this purpose, while a range of education and service providers have developed innovative flexible pathways to an international degree.
As a result of these recent developments, students wishing to receive an international education have now a larger range of viable options beyond travelling long distances to the international university of their choice, including online, blended learning and studying for foreign qualifications in their home country or neighbouring countries.
A short comparative study we have carried out, with the support of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and a grant from the China Ministry of Education, aimed at exploring Chinese students’ perceptions of the quality of their learning experience when studying for a UK degree in the UK or in China.
China and the UK are key players in international education with very strong links, China being by far the largest sending country of international students to the UK, and the UK the largest sending country of undergraduate TNE provision in China.
Understanding Chinese students’ perceptions about the quality, and their views about the key factors they consider when choosing to travel to the UK or to remain in China to pursue their studies, can provide valuable insights to the international community about likely future patterns in international students mobility.
It can also help UK and international institutions alike as they seek to continue to provide a valuable learning experience to international students.
The study was based on a two-parts survey administered to both Chinese students studying in the UK and Chinese students studying at TNE operations in China. The first part explored students’ satisfaction with their study experience, and the second part explored the motivation behind their location of study and whether their views had changed as a consequence of the pandemic.
About 235 students studying on UK TNE in China from 15 different UK TNE operations, and about 40 Chinese students studying in the UK in 12 different UK higher education institution, engaged with the survey. With a note of caution about the lack of comprehensive representation of the student bodies responding to the survey, we believe it is possible to draw on the findings to make some interesting considerations which can inform institutional internationalisation strategies.
The student satisfaction survey drew to a large extent on the UK National Students Survey, with some additional questions and a section on employability. All questions could be answered based on a five point Likert scale of: ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘neither agree or disagree’, ‘disagree’, or ‘strongly disagree’.
In a broad range of aspects, the level of aggregate satisfaction (i.e. ‘strongly agree’ and ‘agree’ combined) of Chinese students studying in the UK is comparable to that of Chinese students studying on UK TNE in China, in particular in those areas related to academic standards, such as academic support, learning resources and assessment and feedback. However, there are two specific areas where some differences of possible significance emerged, ‘Teaching on my course’ and ‘Employability’, where we had differences in aggregate satisfaction levels of over 10%.
The largest difference was recorded for the question about whether ‘the course is intellectually stimulating’, where UK based Chinese students registered 94% aggregate satisfaction, while Chinese students on UK TNE in China registered only 77% aggregate satisfaction. There was also a noticeable difference with regard to the question about whether ‘teachers are good at explaining things’, with 92% for UK based Chinese students and 82% for Chinese students on UK TNE in China.
These differences might point to the challenge specific to TNE arrangements, where course delivery can typically be only or primarily by lecturers who do not teach at the home campus of the TNE degree-awarding body.
Noticeable differences were also recorded with regard to questions concerning employability, in particular whether ‘career advice is available’ (95% for UK based students against 83% for students on UK TNE in China), and whether ‘the course supports the development of a wide range of employability skills’ (92% for UK based students against 83% for students on UK TNE in China). This registered difference might point to the significant challenge of being able to provide for TNE students equally good and comprehensive career advice suited to the local context in comparison to those now regularly offered by most UK higher education institutions to students studying at the home campus.
Of interest is also the 11% higher satisfaction rates of UK based Chinese students with having ‘received adequate induction and student support’ in transitioning to their UK studies.
This section of the survey concluded with an open question about best features and areas of improvement. For UK based students the most reported positive experience (23%) related to the different UK approaches to teaching and learning based on interactive classrooms, a focus on critical thinking and the development of soft skills. The other two most mentioned positive features (13% each) related to course content and teachers being approachable and supportive.
For China based students, the most reported positive aspect (22%) was the opportunity to study and learn in an English-speaking environment. This was followed by similar comments relating to the quality and supportiveness of teachers (18%), and the different UK approach to teaching and learning with specific emphasis on critical thinking and group discussion (13%).
Looking at areas of improvement, for UK based students the most reported aspect (35%) regarded the improvement of teaching quality or practice, including reducing class size and having more practical applications. The second most reported aspect regarded the institution’s response to the pandemic (22%) with specific reference to the quality of the online learning environment and support provided to students. Other suggestions for improvement regarded career advice, and opportunities for social interaction including specifically with British students (9% each).
For China based students, the most recurrent comments (12%) concerned English language, either expressing general difficulties related to their lack of English language skills or making specific reference to the difficulties in understanding the different accents of foreign or local lecturers. The second most reported area for improvement regarded marking and assessment (11%), with specific reference to there being too many assessments or not understanding how the marking system works. Other suggestions for improvement regarded teaching (9%), expressing either concerns about quality, often with specific reference to the impact of Covid, or lack of familiarity with the different UK approach to teaching and learning.
The responses of both student populations were in part affected by the impact of the pandemic on their learning experience and their expectations. This appeared to be more markedly so for UK based students, possibly due to the level of investment and expectations involved in travelling to the UK.
For China based students several comments pointed to the quality of their learning experience, pointing to expectations about being taught more regularly by the TNE providers’ staff. However, both sets of students were generally happy with the quality of their teaching and support provided, and in particular seemed to commonly appreciate the different UK approach to teaching and learning with a focus on developing independent critical thinking.
The second part of the survey looked at the motivations behind Chinese students’ choice to pursue their UK higher education studies either in the UK or in China.
For students who decided to travel to the UK the most common response related to a specific interest in British culture (35%), followed by the shorter duration of their studies than in China (18%), as well as the more general interest in experiencing a different culture (18%), and improving English language skills (12%).
For students who decided to enrol on a UK TNE program in China by far the most common motivation (56%) was convenience, which was generally qualified as being able to receive an international education and/or improve English language skills studying closer to home and at lower costs. Often reference was made to not being able to travel internationally for personal reasons, or due to the Covid pandemic, or due to insufficient English language skills. The other most common response referred to the intention to carry out further studies in the UK or abroad after graduation (15%), seeing TNE as allowing them to get ready culturally, academically, and linguistically to study and live in the UK or other international location. A number of responses (9%) also referred to choosing TNE as a way to access higher education despite having obtained low Gaokao scores.
Regarding students studying on UK TNE programs in China, 51% responded that they had considered to study in the UK instead. When asked whether, based on their experience, they would have preferred studying in the UK after all, only 14% responded affirmatively. Looking at Chinese students studying in the UK, only 24% had considered studying on a UK TNE program in China. When asked whether, based on their experience, they would have preferred studying in China instead, only 11% responded affirmatively.
Most students were therefore satisfied with their initial decision, with few students thinking they would have better made a different choice about their location of study, often due to the impact of Covid 19. This might point to the consideration that the two populations of students are quite distinct, with little overlap.
Both sets of students generally appreciate an international education and an international experience, often with a specific appreciation towards British style higher education and British culture, and the desire to improve their English language skills. The main differentiating factor consist in the inability or unwillingness to travel internationally by part of those students choosing to remain in China for their international education, for considerations that are beyond the control of education providers, such as costs, and family or work commitments. Some students however do decide to pursue TNE in China as a first step towards an international study experience in the UK.
About the authors: Dr. Fabrizio Trifiro is head of Quality Benchmark Services, Ecctis/UK ENIC, Dr. Xiaozhou (Emily) Zhou, Associate Professor at Shanghai International Studies University and Miss Xinran Chen, research assistant at Shanghai International Studies University.