Chinese parents, famously attentive to the education of their single children, are highly adept at rattling off the names of America's Ivy League universities.
But judging by the number of anchors sporting Wenzhou-meets-Windsor BBC accents on the country's English-language broadcast services, China Central TV and China Radio International, Britain is popular too.
That might have something to do with Britain's skill in funneling Chinese students into its universities.
"China is one of the largest international education markets for the UK," said Jazreel Goh, marketing manager at the British Council in Beijing.
Of 60,000 Chinese students currently studying in the UK, 53,000 are in higher education, said Goh. As many as 53% are enrolled in graduate-level courses. Migratory students bring cash and brainpower which keep the country's renowned universities modern and competitive.
"They are there for the quality and international recognition of UK courses," said Goh. "They're also attracted to the intensive one-year postgraduate programs that will allow them to get quickly back to work."
Font of knowledge
Many of China's brightest can be found scanning brochures at the British Council, a two-floored hive of education materials in downtown Beijing. Nowhere in China are a nation's education options so comprehensively presented.
Now, though, Chinese students don't have to go all the way to Britain for a British university education.
The University of Nottingham's US$70.5 million campus in Ningbo, built in full British-colonial style, charges students US$6,400 a year for tuition. The overall operation may be controlled by the Zhejiang Wanli Education Group, but Nottingham recruits students and devises the curricula, and students leave with University of Nottingham degrees.
Opening a China campus, even one that is run on a non-profit basis, was a logical step for the university, given the large Chinese student population on its home campus. Up to 40% of students in its business undergraduate programs in England are Chinese, according to one Nottingham economics lecturer.
In September, the University of Liverpool opened a campus in Suzhou, just south of Nottingham-in-Ningbo, in partnership with Xi'an Jiaotong University.
The new campus will have input from Liverpool on curricula and defer to Merseyside professors on quality control issues. But it will award its own degrees.
"It's not an outpost of a British university," said said Vice-Chancellor Professor Drummond Bone.
Research-driven University of Liverpool seems a snug fit for China. Its management school focuses strongly on e-business and entrepreneurship, and its schools of medicine and biological science draw US$176 million in research commissions from business every year.
This harmony between academia and business is championed by the Chinese leadership as a means of achieving the technological growth spurt that will push the country further foward.
Representatives from multinationals will advise the new Suzhou campus so its degree programs produce the kind of graduates needed by corporations.
A China campus is only part of Liverpool's strategy. Like Nottingham, it wants to bring Chinese students to its home campus and also sell e-learning programs that teach degrees online. As studying in the UK is still too expensive for most Chinese, online solutions may prove to be a winner for Britain's education sector.
However, British universities are a victim of the global popularity of the English language. Besides fending off competition from Australia and New Zealand, Scandinavian universities are increasingly offering courses in English – for free.
This is proving popular with the Chinese. Secondary school teacher Chen Yuanyuan figured a year in the UK would cost at least US$19,300, compared to US$5,100 a year in Finland, where she's taking her Masters in Education at Turku University. Her furnished apartment costs a bargain US$280 a month and she buys subsidized school lunches for US$3.
"You could barely get a McDonald's hamburger in London for that," she said.
Still, different economic rationale can persuade students to choose Britain.
"Strong links with industry leads to very strong academic courses that are highly practical and relevant to current employer needs," said Goh. Britain's intensive one-year graduate courses receive mixed reviews but then there is the bonus of new schemes that will allow graduates to stay a further two years to gain work experience and employment in the UK.
"This allows UK graduates to build up their experience and have more competitive advantage when they return back to join the Chinese workforce," said Goh.
For all of Scandinavia's free tuition, Chinese families ultimately prefer to send their children to Britain. As Chen said, "Parents believe a British diploma will guarantee their child a better future."
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