China Student Recruitment Problems – Q & A With 5 Experts
Student recruitment seems to be one of the only fields that hasn’t been revolutionized by the Internet yet.
As a 20+ year veteran of the International student recruitment field told me:
“Universities are the dinosaurs of marketing… It’s insane! They can’t track anything… They don’t have the concept of marketing…
The people running university student recruitment programs need to all die out. But, a new wave is coming... It might take 10-20 years, but it’s coming. The industry will catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to digital marketing.”
It’s a bit harsh, and a bit of exaggeration. But, I agree there’s a huge opportunity to reshape the student recruitment industry, especially for outgoing Chinese students. A lot of other people besides myself can see the problems as well, and they’re coming up with solutions of their own.
In this post I interview 5 people with experience with this niche, although each of them is coming from it from a different angle. They are:
- Jessica Wu – Manage of International Digital Recruitment at Conestoga College, Canada.
- Cecilia Fan – Founder of a business that consults with higher education institutions on the China recruitment. ChinaHigherEducation.com. They also produce a lot of content, including a popular monthly newsletter.
- Ivo Ganchev – Managing Director for Mainland China at Pacyon Education (www.pacyon.cn) providing training for entry to top UK/US universities and for competitive jobs/internships.
- Jon Santangelo – Spokesperson for the Beijing Overseas Study Services Association, an industry association of Chinese institutions and student recruitment agencies. Their purpose is to train, guide, and evaluate 200-plus member education agencies.
- Derrik L Karst – Director of International Engagement for eduFair China, a digital platform that will connect Chinese students and international institutions.
How Does Chinese Student Recruitment Work Now?
The way that global education institutions recruit Chinese students really takes me back to the 90s… Before the days of the Internet.
(Note, I’ll be calling them “universities” throughout, while referring to higher education institutions that include universities, colleges and polytechnics.)
The basic model is a system of middlemen called “agents”. The agents earn a commission from universities for each sale. The system isn’t as simple 1-to-1 relationships either. Between a university and student, there may be several agents, including individuals and businesses.
When any modern marketer or techie I know that learns how this system works immediately thinks “wow, this is a gold mine! One of the last undiscovered area for the Internet to replace the middleman.” … But they shouldn’t think too fast. There are quite a few barriers in the way. Well-funded companies have tried and failed.
While the network of agents is inefficient, there is indeed value to the services provided by some education agents. Some provide great value to students by helping them understand education options and get into the institution that best suits them.
Here are the 3 questions I asked the experts:
- When it comes to recruiting students from China, what are the biggest problems faced by foreign higher education institutions?
- What are the biggest problems faced by students?
- What's one or two ways that it can be done better?
1) When it comes to recruiting students from China, what are the biggest problems faced by foreign higher education institutions?
- Jessica (University Staff) – “It varies depending on the institution. One common problem could be the rapid growth in numbers of institutions and educational options that enter the market. It increases “noise” level significantly, and of course, increases the cost of recruitment.
China has remained the top source country for university students and ranked second in sending college students to major destination countries such as US, Canada, UK, Japan, Australia and New Zealand for a few years. How to stand out and make your voice heard has become a challenge to many institutions.
Second, China is a huge country and densely populated from North to South. It’s hard to just apply resources to one or two specific locations like in some other markets. Quite some efforts are needed to build connections that work as expected.”
- Cecilia (Consultant to Universities) – “Universities over-rely on agents’ networks and promotion. They have little direct control in terms of promotion content and channels. This is a risky approach as agents’ interests do not completely align with the institutions’ interests.”
- Ivo (Consultant to Students) – “Foreign universities still navigate their way into China, albeit inefficiently, through the help of third parties, and at the expense of mismatching student aims/expectations to their experiences.”
- Jon (Agent Association Rep) – “The institutions need to compare their options and find the right strategy. For example, should they hire a China representative? Or run an online marketing campaign?
Should they hire in-house staff with agency relations and experience? Or, how should they manage relations with education agents?
How should they communicate with students? They can't to everything by phone and email.
Also, are they prepared financially? They should set aside a budget to find and secure partnerships in China. There are additional expenses to consider, such as more country visits for periodical training and information sessions, marketing fees, and possible FAM Trips (familiarization trips) for agents and partners to their campus.”
- Derrik (Web Portal Director) – “From the feedback we’ve received from international institutions, I think the largest recruitment challenges involve communication, localization, and differentiation.
China has several unique hurdles that make it difficult to connect with students. First, China is large and far away. Many institutions make visits to China as a way to connect with students face-to-face. This type of interaction is extremely valuable, but it is also expensive and limited. Generally, schools that visit China can only cover a few cities during a few weeks a year. Thus, schools are only able to communicate with a small proportion of their potential applicants - those who live within a certain geographic radius and whose schedules align over a certain weekend.
Schools can use digital channels to reach more students. The challenge here is that China’s internet operates very differently from anywhere else in the world. Many staples like Google, YouTube, and Facebook are completely blocked in China. Even the way people use the internet differs greatly; for example, in China, people seldom use email and prefer to use instant messaging. Therefore, for institutions to have the broadest impact, they really must localize their marketing and communication. This certainly requires some local knowledge as names like Baidu, Weibo, QQ, and WeChat may seem very foreign to many recruitment staff. As an added barrier, many of these platforms require China-based representatives in order to create official accounts.
Last, it can be very difficult for international institutions to differentiate themselves in China. Because Chinese students may not be familiar with the nuances of foreign education systems, they tend to rely heavily on rankings and agent advice. Also, on the surface, many schools advertise similar things - stimulating environments, friendly faces, and beautiful campuses. The key is for an institution to communicate and deliver a unique experience offered by their faculty, campus, and corner of the world.”
2) What are the biggest problems faced by students?
- Jessica – “I would say language barriers and time differences often block students from getting the right information and services that meet their expectations.”
- Cecilia – “Students feel overloaded with information for similar-looking universities. Students / agents tend to merely differentiate universities by study destination and ranking, which is an over-simplified version of selecting universities. Other information such as studying experience, campus life, scholarships, exchanges, internships and employment outcomes tend to be very limited at the recruiting stage.
Some information still doesn’t really exist in Chinese language, still very few people have the ability to research in English and verify the source of the content in English.”
- Jon - "Students want on-the-ground services, AKA landing services. When they get to the destination country, they need help with more than just school. They need help with cultural acclamation, food, social activities, job opportunities & internships."
- Ivo – “The problems faced by Chinese students applying to study abroad can be grouped into three categories:
- Derrik – “I certainly feel that the most common problem among Chinese students is that they don't have reliable information for making decisions about studying abroad… When we canvassed foreign universities’ websites, we found that 77% had admissions content that was blocked in China.
Also, simply put: studying abroad is confusing. Students must get to know a foreign education system along with a new language and culture. They must select their “dream school” but also navigate test preparation, visas, and adjusting to a new life abroad.
As students have so many questions and limited resources for answering them, it’s easy to see how the majority of students have come to rely on agents. However, this has created different problems for students and schools: there have been cases where agents falsify student’s credentials or recommend schools based on commission instead of proper fit. ”
3) What's one or two ways that it can be done better?
- Jessica – “Based on my experience with Chinese students and parents, I find providing information and services in the local language is very helpful and appreciated. Establishing reputation and trust in an eco-system that Chinese students and parents are familiar with would benefit an institution in a longer term.”
- Cecilia – “I would always encourage universities to take a “parallel” approach, making an effort to build some level of direct promotion / recruitment channel, together with agency’s channel, it’s the safest approach and will be beneficial in the long-run.”
- Jon - "Schools & agents should provide more frequent communication with students after they've arrived. Help them with work & study opportunities. Schools might also consider partnering with homestay networks and international student service providers.
BOSSA’s International association hosts various opportunities for educators and service providers from overseas to meet its 200+ agency national members. Whether in the form of in-country events, agent networking workshops, or online via webinars, BOSSA has serviced almost 60 overseas institutions and companies for over 3 years since it began.
BOSSA at its core is the national association of international education agencies in China. Since 2004, the association has been the professional accreditation body for the industry.
Furthermore; along with ICEF and the Chinese Ministry of Human Affairs, BOSSA launched a public-private initiative in 2014 known as the China Education Agent Course, CEAC, an individual certification program which has become the standard credential for individual professional agents in China. BOSSA also in 2014 launched a Verification Center which authenticates academic documents such as transcripts, diplomas, and degrees.”
- Ivo – “The path to providing official and reliable support channels during the recruitment process is clear:
- station local bilingual representatives of the university,
- open and maintain social media accounts in mandarin,
- and promote awareness at the more basic level about the purpose of each document in the application process.
‘Western’ universities often seem to forget that the background skillset and social media habits of local students might be very different from that of home students.
- Derrik – “Much of what eduFair is doing seeks to address these problems. We believe that centralized, reliable information can help students make empowered decisions and act on their dreams with confidence. One step is to allow institutions to clearly present their offerings and enrollment procedures. Another step is to create open communication among students, organizations, and institutions so that they can assess their best fit and guide each other through the process.
Institutions can benefit from better channels of communication by finding the best-qualified applicants. Also, institutions can build relationships with partners they trust and keep these partners 'in the loop’ with standardized marketing and updates. For students, better information will lead to better outcomes as students can gain a 360-degree picture of schools and choose the best pathway for enrollment.
Another way it could be done better is for schools to engage their current Chinese students and alumni: solicit students for ways to improve their experience; support graduates in finding jobs; and use successful students as your ambassadors. After all, who is better qualified to speak about a school’s unique features than someone who lives on campus? Who can better advise on applications and visas than someone who has gone through it all before?
In the end, a school's student network may be its greatest asset for recruiting in China. Positive word-of-mouth goes far in China, and it is the best tool for communicating, localizing, and differentiating an institution among Chinese applicants.”
Of the 5 answers, they all recognized similar problems, but played different roles in creating solutions.
Ivo and Pacyon work for students only, and charge for their service. I’d call them real education consultants rather than education sales agents.
Jon and BOSSA set standards for education agents, helping to weed out the bad ones and make it easier for universities to work with agents.
Cecilia and China Higher Education take a broad approach, and recommend universities take a dual approach by using agents & direct/digital marketing channels.
Jessica works in a university that is also taking that approach. From talking with many universities, I feel that most are very apprehensive in taking that approach. They’ll spend $1M on agent fees before they set aside $50K/year for marketing.
I have hopes for web portals to create a digital marketplace for universities and students to connect. Maybe it will be eduFair China that succeeds there. I’m also aware of a couple small start-ups pushing in that direction, although it seems the worlds’ biggest portals aren’t active in China in a big way.