29 March 2017
by Ka Ho Mok

When Chinese students study in the UK, do they become more employable?

Ka Ho Mok and Han Xiao have been speaking to Chinese students about their experiences in UK higher education in Times Higher Education.

In the past two decades, we have witnessed a steady increase in the number of students from the Asia-Pacific studying abroad or enrolling in transnational higher education programmes. With a strong belief that international and transnational higher education will enhance their employability, governments, universities, students and their parents in Asia are all eager to engage in an international education.

This interest is reflected by the growing number of international students worldwide, which has risen from 2.1 million in 2000 to about 5 million in 2014 – an annual increase of 10 per cent.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, observing the study-abroad trend, further predicts that changes in global demographics mean that the number of international students could reach 8 million by 2025.

The graph below shows that the Asia-Pacific region is one of the major contributors to this tide of global student mobility, with students from this region accounting for 53 per cent of all mobile students worldwide in 2011. More specifically, the net number of students studying abroad rose from 459,850 in 1999 to 1,208,061 in 2014. The British Council predicted in 2012 that India and China would contribute 35 per cent of the global growth in international students between 2011 and 2024.

The growing number of students studying abroad or enrolling in transnational higher education in the Asia-Pacific is closely related to the region’s strong cultural belief that higher education enhances career development and reputation.

A good education and academic qualifications are regarded as significant achievements. Hence, Asian families and individuals pool resources and family assets to support their children’s university education. This has facilitated the massification of higher education, which has been heavily reliant on the privatisation and marketisation of education.

One of the most popular destinations for Asians who wish to study abroad is Britain, and the next graph indicates the increasing number of inbound students worldwide coming to the UK. The UK is ranked as the second host country (after the US) for international students from the Asia-Pacific region – generating an economic benefit of about £4.23 billion through tuition fees of non-European Union students in 2014-15 (even though the surging trend has started to flatten in recent years).

Chinese international students’ employability

Our current research is a pilot study of a larger project on UK international students and graduates from East Asia, looking at their careers, earnings, jobs and mobility. The research team, based at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, is critically examining how Chinese students who have completed their study abroad in the UK have found their job search and career development experiences on their return to their home country.

We conducted an initial online survey with 106 respondents, and 20 follow-up interviews in January 2017. Contrary to most reports in the Chinese media that international learning will not enhance graduate employment, our respondents gave positive evaluations of how studying overseas has enhanced their job searches and career development. These positive assessments are supported by evidence of an encouraging employment rate among this group, and by our respondents’ subjective evaluations of how studying overseas had been a transformative experience.

Our research has a balanced gender ratio, with 53 male and 53 female respondents. Most obtained master’s degrees (89 per cent), which they consider more ‘economical’ because of the relatively short duration of one year in the UK (in contrast to master’s degrees in China, which normally take two to three years).

Some respondents mentioned that UK universities offer tuition discounts to their graduates for continuing postgraduate study, creating an incentive for them to complete further study in the UK. Interestingly, instead of citing academic interests, our respondents commonly believe that having a master’s degree from a UK university will enhance their career prospects.

The employment rate for our respondents is good. Nearly 59 per cent were able to find a job within three months, while 32 per cent secured jobs within six months. All the respondents reported that they were able to secure employment within one year.

Having obtained overseas degrees, some of the respondents stated that they were not too anxious about job hunting, planning to opt for a gap year, or at least a ‘relaxed period’ before venturing into the labour market.

Most important of all, participants expressed positive assessments of their international learning experiences. About 90 per cent valued overseas study and considered such experiences to have greatly enhanced their job searches. As one interviewee put it: ‘Even though my family has some relationship with the company [where she is now working], I cannot get the chance for interviews without the foreign degree…some of the criteria may not be publicised as specific recruitment criteria, but you know that the human resource officers will shortlist candidates based on their higher education qualifications, favouring those graduated from overseas learning’.

In addition, our respondents regarded international learning highly not simply because of the degrees and qualifications they have obtained. Most significant to them are the soft skills – such as language abilities, personal and interpersonal communications, international perspectives, analytical skills and self-management and organisational/problem-solving abilities – that they gained from study abroad and which enable them to act as ‘global citizens’.

In addition, they appreciated the overseas learning and living experiences, through which they have learned to respect and tolerate different cultures, enabling them to become more adaptable to external changes. Leaving their ‘comfort zone’ and social networks in mainland China, these Chinese young people studying in the UK have to confront many unprecedented challenges alone.

‘Rather than knowledge acquired in the university or a single piece of certificate, overseas learning means a lot to me…and I have become a more open-minded and confident person,’ one interviewee shared with us.

Implications for UK universities

There has been some concern as to whether the rise of Chinese and Asian universities in the global university league tables would create disincentives for students from these regions to study abroad. Our research clearly suggests that there are still strong motivations for Chinese students to study overseas if they can afford to do so.

With local universities producing a significant number of graduates, it is therefore not surprising to see Chinese university graduates looking for postgraduate study programmes in the UK, and finding one-year master’s degrees particularly attractive. To capture the interests of these Chinese graduates, together with the need to look for alternative sources of funding after the UK exits the EU, universities in the UK should reach out to China, working collaboratively with universities to offer dual or joint academic programmes.

As UK universities have taken the employability of students and student learning satisfaction very seriously, they should keep up their good track records in order to attract students coming from China and Asia, and to ensure that the UK continues to be their destination of choice for overseas studies.