The post is brought to you by our guest author, Ivo Ganchev.
Over half a million students leave China to study abroad every year, with the US (1), Australia (2), the UK (4) and Canada (5) being four of their top five destinations – but the seemingly smooth application process is paved with obstacles for students and foreign institutions alike. This blog post explores the main problems faced by Chinese students, provides an overview of the educational consultancy market and of the issues faced by ‘Western’ universities to provide recommendations for all stakeholders.
The problems faced by Chinese students applying to study abroad can be grouped into three categories:
The first category, technical, covers language problems on online application forms, unfamiliar terminology, and inability to navigate efficiently through ‘Western’ websites.
It is not unusual for Chinese students to have an IELTS of around 5 or 5.5 when beginning to prepare an application – at that point they still have substantial time to improve their English through extra practice/classes or through taking a pre-sessional course at their target university during the summer break. This score indicates an ability between B1 and B2 (CEFR); for students at the lower end of the spectrum that means they can deal with new information “in a general way”. Placed out of context, phrases such as “unseen disability” and “no known disability” often remain unclear to the student, even if they are accompanied with relevant pop-up definitions in English (which is most often not the case). Students can easily make technical errors when filling out forms.
Terminology related to the education system of their target country and/or to specific subjects presents another set of difficulties. For instance, applicants to the UK are almost always confused by degree classification terms such as First/Second Class Honours, Distinction and Merit. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the perception of these terms (in a UK context) does not always directly translate to their percentage scores, as UK classifications can have different equivalents for different ‘tiers’ of Chinese universities (e.g. Project 985 and 211 as opposed to others). Finally, subject-specific terminology (e.g. ‘external environment’ in a business context) also causes issues in reading course descriptions.
Cultural difficulties become apparent in the first drafts of resumes and personal statements. Chinese-language resumes are sometimes standardized and always include information which would be irrelevant (or even inappropriate) in English-speaking countries. For instance:
The majority of students assume that translating this information into English constitutes a workable CV. If a student already has work experience, they were perhaps asked to fill out plenty of forms which require the above-described information (and succeeded in getting a job). They may struggle to understand why they are required to elaborate on past experiences, provide details selectively, tweak CVs for different applications, and omit elements such as passport photo and date of birth.
A simple guideline for personal statements and other application essays is: specific, relevant, concise. Some of my students struggle to comply to these criteria even after graduating from a foreign institution, let alone at the time of their application. In my initial conversations with students, most fail to provide a substantial explanation of the reason behind word counts – despite having written plenty of university essays with capped word limits. Moreover, millions of Chinese students seem to be ‘promoting (all kinds of) cooperation’ every year in their personal statements but few are able to explain what actions they can actually take when asked directly. Formulaic phrases are abundant in Chinese academic writing; they are also culturally acceptable in Chinese academia and in student essays at Chinese universities. Unsurprisingly, English translations of such language pervade personal statements as well. The causes of this phenomenon can be explained top-down (e.g. professors to students) or bottom-top (cultural history shapes norms of rhetoric) – but the problem remains persistent either way.
Another set of difficulties stems from differences in admissions and recruitment processes between Chinese and UK/US universities and companies. In most cases, student recruitment is an exam/results-oriented process in China. High school graduates take the ‘gaokao’ (A-levels equivalent), and they are ranked based on their scores. This means that differences between top students are quantifiable (and often marginal). In contrast, for UCAS (UK bachelor’s application system) A-level scores are only a part of the application – and they need to be supplemented by a CV and a personal statement, the latter being key. Moreover, applying directly through UCAS after the gaokao is (still) often not possible as UK universities might require students with 12 years of formal education to do a foundation year.
Either way, the issue here is not merely technical – it is underpinned by systemic differences which cause various misunderstandings. A student who has already adapted to an exam-based rankings system often struggles and lacks the skills to succeed in another mode of operation. Sometimes these issues gradually fade away (after spending a significant amount of time abroad), but this is not necessarily the case, especially for Chinese graduates from short (one- or two-year, often masters) programmes. Different aspects of the above issues re-emerge during job applications – and even when they do not, the interview process, as well as a lack of commercial awareness and soft skills cause another set of difficulties. Being aware of this situation, some 400,000 graduates of foreign institutions returned to China in 2016. Meanwhile, the financial incentive for that is already there – contrary to popular expectations Beijing recently announced 6.9% growth for 2017.
This leads to another issue – the skewed role and perception of foreign education in China. There is a genuine lack of critical mass amongst recruiters and companies; they seem – in my view – to divide candidates into four categories in order of priority:
While this is not always the case, it is a mode of thought that creates a caste-like trend in the job market – and fuels demand for study programmes overseas. Meanwhile, as differences between similarly-ranked foreign institutions seem subtle to recruiters, they seem to be creating and reproducing a gaokao-style system based on their (second-hand, or often rankings-based) perceptions of university reputation. In other words, vastly different institutions become grouped into categories such as ‘top,’ ‘top 200,’ and others.
Hence, if a Chinese student starts with the goal of finding a job back home, the specific details of their study abroad experience might not be important to them, or to their future employer. The former results into a lack of motivation to research courses abroad in detail – and even when this is not the case, students face technical difficulties and remain ‘trapped’ in a vicious cycle (see fig. 1 below).
Enter: the invisible hand. Only a few students manage to break the cycle themselves. Those who are not able to enter Peking, Tsinghua or other top institutions in China head to non-branded institutions abroad, provided they can afford it.
Meanwhile, talented students realize that seeking additional support can allow them to punch above their weight, increasing their chances of entering the world’s elite universities. In a fast-growing economy with a competitive population, obsessed with education and (still – in my view) midway through a social opening-up, the emerging middle class naturally creates demand for educational consultancies across the entire spectrum: from (dodgy) personal statement service to (highly-reliable) elite coaching.
Plenty of agencies aim to serve as many students as possible. On one hand, they are comparatively cheap (in very rare cases – free) and often provide ‘guaranteed entry,’ albeit into low-ranked or mid-ranked institutions (which they conveniently have commission-based agreements with). These agencies turn bullet points in Chinese into personal statements in English and act as promoters of cash- and student-strapped Western institutions. The problem here is three-fold; firstly, they are faced with a conflict of interest. In order to maximize profit by charging both students and universities, these ‘consultants’ are inclined to sometimes mismatch able students with unsuitable institutions. Secondly, seeking to minimize costs, agencies might hire incompetent advisors in the first place – even mid-range consultancies appoint local Chinese lead tutors whose greatest achievement is holding a one- or two-year masters degree from abroad. Resulting misinformation fed to students can cover any area – from accommodation and transport to academic courses and departments. Thirdly, such agencies employ industrial-age pipeline models which leave students with no further support – and hence leave them with no job prospects abroad.
As Managing Director for Pacyon Education, I ensure that we provide high-quality support – and that means employing elite UK/US-based tutors with decades of professional experience in various sectors to conduct Skype consultations, as well as training a local support team. We provide comprehensive support for university entry (including university selection) and go beyond through coaching students how to succeed in an interview and to understand the logic which underpins systemic differences between China and the US/UK. Our tutors provide guidance in an interactive process which unlocks the potential of students and matches our services to their needs and goals. We see university admission as an initial step in a long-term career plan, not as an end in itself.
Foreign institutions rarely alleviate the issues discussed above – even at universities with high numbers of Chinese students, there is insufficient awareness and incorporation of local language and culture into their market strategy.
In my experience (prior to launching Pacyon), it is often difficult and sometimes impossible to convince UK universities to take even basic steps in the right direction. Explaining that a WeChat QR code is more efficient than using an iPad for e-mail subscriptions at education fairs is often met with skepticism. The ideas of uploading regular updates in mandarin or approaching students directly after their initial inquiry seem to be too much work, while hiring local staff is considered an unbearable expense. Meanwhile, these same universities spend considerable amounts annually on business class plane tickets and trips for their monolingual staff to attend education fairs in China. Student recruitment is a zero-sum market, full of options for ‘consumers' and universities who do not adapt their strategies fall behind.
This is why Western institutions reach out to local agents and consultancies offering them a percentage-based commission per recruited student and creating a conflict of interest – ultimately locking in another self-reproducing cycle. In the end, 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. Local consultancies benefit by bridging the gap – but sometimes by offering sub-par advice, and in the context of balancing commitments to two parties. It is students and their families who are exposed to the risk of misinformation, and sometimes making wrong decisions.
At Pacyon, our policy is to receive fees and work in the best interest of only one party in any single case. We are primarily looking to assist students to apply for institutions which suit their aims, offer high-quality programmes and are in good academic standing. We also promote transparency and believe that this is the right step forward to bridging the misinformation gap and helping young graduates achieve their goals, rather than seeking to constantly expand our scope.
While I believe that the adoption of this policy would yield better results, it is not realistic to believe that the current system can easily change in the short term. There needs to be a driving force - and it is students who can create different a different type of demand and form a critical mass. Chinese applicants need to demand more in order to start a process of gradual and sustainable changes in the service that many consultants provide. Otherwise, they will expose themselves to the risks of a flawed system.
Ivo Ganchev (伊夫) is 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. He is also a multilingual academic affiliated with Peking University where he focuses on China-Latin America relations and on theory building in Politics. Ivo is a graduate of the London School of Economics and teaches short courses at Queen Mary University of London.
In his spare time, he plays the guitar and sings on the Beijing rock scene.
He can be reached at email@example.com and via LinkedIn.