Applications from Chinese students to study at UK universities have gone up 30% since last year, with numbers exceeding those from Northern Ireland for the first time, according to official statistics.
The Ucas university admissions agency revealed on Thursday it had received almost 20,000 undergraduate applications from students in China this year (19,760, up from 15,240 in 2018), compared with 18,520 from Northern Ireland. The real figure will be higher as not all Chinese applications are made via Ucas.
The number of students from mainland China studying in UK higher education has more than doubled in the last decade. Commentators say however that recent tensions between China and the US are further benefitting British universities as Chinese students look at destinations other than America for their studies.
Welcoming the figures, the universities minister, Chris Skidmore, said: “International students bring huge cultural and economic benefits to the UK. These figures show we are making good progress in our ambition to open up world-leading higher education to anyone who has the potential to benefit from it and I’m confident that we can go even further.”
The Ucas figures also revealed an increase in the number of British 18-year-olds applying for places, up 1% on last year to 275,520 despite a 1.9% fall in the overall 18-year-old population of the UK. EU applicants have also risen 1%, to 50,650 despite the Brexit uncertainty, and Ucas reported a record number of applicants from outside the EU at 81,340, an increase of 8%.
China is already the biggest source of international students at British universities. In 2007-2008, there were 43,530 Chinese students in the UK, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa). Ten years later the total went up to 106,530, of which 60,460 were postgraduate students and 46,070 undergraduates.
Clare Marchant, Ucas chief executive, said: “The global appeal of UK higher education has never been clearer, with record demographic-beating application rates in England and Wales, and the steep rise in international applications, especially from China.”
The University of Manchester has the largest population of Chinese students in Europe. With about 5,000 Chinese students out of a total of just over 40,000, about one in eight students are Chinese. “The university is well known in China,” said Richard Cotton, director of student recruitment and outreach at Manchester. “It’s partly because of the football,” he said. Then in 2015, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, visited the National Graphene Institute (NGI) at Manchester university. “We did see a significant increase in applications [from China] after that.”
Chinese students are crucial to Manchester’s ambitions to be a truly international university, says Cotton. “You can’t project yourself as an international university unless you have large cohort of international students. They are bringing connections. In the classroom they can offer an international experience for domestic students.”
But there are challenges. Currently Chinese students are concentrated in a limited number of subject areas, such as accounting and finance, economics, business studies and electrical engineering. As a result, they often end up studying in classes full of other Chinese students and socialising together when classes are over.
Tao Wang is a politics PhD student at the University of Manchester. He likes the diversity of the city, but there are difficulties too. “In the politics department, next to my desk is a Greek student, next to him is an Italian, and then a Briton, a Romanian, a French [student] and so on. Some of my best friends are from Nigeria, Mexico and Thailand. The diversity is the real beauty of Manchester that I truly love.”
“The challenge for me as a Chinese student is security,” he says. “There are too many robberies. Rumours are that students from China are particularly targeted by robbers. This might be because of the stereotype that Chinese students are crazy rich.”
The university says it is doing all it can to improve student safety with regular police drop-in surgeries, the development of a student neighbourhood watch-style group called “student eye” and specific campaigns focussing on international student safety.
The university is also developing research to try to find ways to encourage greater integration between Chinese and British students. “Students from both the UK and China are interested in each other,” says Wang, “but it looks like they don’t mix much. There is a cultural barrier.”
They also live separately. Chinese students are often in more expensive, purpose-built student flats, while British students live in shared houses. And according to Wang, the two groups socialise in completely different ways. “Chinese students like doing homework together, having a hotpot at home, singing karaoke, going shopping – for some, for luxury goods.
“British students particularly enjoy alcohol in pubs with loud music. I’ve heard complaints from my Chinese friends that they couldn’t make many local friends because they just didn’t like pubs.”
Nick Hillman is a governor at Manchester university and director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank. Commenting on the latest Ucas application figures, he said: “It’s clear that the UK is benefiting from cooler relations between China and the US, and also between China and Australia. We can’t take anything for certain as demand from other countries is very sensitive to all sorts of things but we are clearly gaining advantage at the moment.”
By Sally Weale