Will Chinese students be back in Europe this year?

September 13, 2021
By Helena Beard

As universities begin to open their doors again for the start of a new academic year, it’s not just the universities and their accommodation providers who are keen to see how many Chinese students turn up physically for their enrolment week. European destinations, attractions and hotels are also key stakeholders in this market, and keen to know whether the student market will prove to be a lucrative source of tourists this year for sightseeing, experiences and shopping within Europe.

China has long been a leading source of international students for the UK, and contribute more than £1 billion to the economy. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 35 percent of all non-EU students in 2019-20 were from China, and since 2015/16, the number of students from China has increased by 56%, to 141,870 in 2019-20. The Chinese are far and away the most important cohort of all international students for UK universities. Other important markets, such as India and Italy, don’t even come close.

Although the final figures won’t be available till later this year, indicators are already looking promising. Important initiatives are in place to help Chinese students come to the UK, either to begin their degrees or return to their studies. More than 50 UK universities, including Imperial College London, the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter, have already worked together to charter four flights to bring in 1,200 Chinese students in time to start their degrees later this month. The flights reputedly sold out within 30 minutes reflecting the intense demand amongst students keen to take advantage of the reasonably priced tickets and the opportunity to travel with other students. International education organisation, Into HE, which is working with the universities to hire the flights to help students travel to the UK, said more charter flights are being arranged to meet demand and will leave from Hong Kong. 

Currently all direct flights from the UK to mainland China have been suspended but students from mainland China can travel to Hong Kong which is on the UK’s green list. Airport transfers between Heathrow and UK campuses are reportedly being organised, as well as accommodation and food supplies for students who, under current restrictions, will need to isolate on campus for 10 days on arrival. Early indicators are looking promising. 

China remains of paramount importance to UK universities

In the meantime, data from university admissions service UCAS, shows that UK universities are seeing a steep decline in the number of EU international students in the UK post-Brexit while applications from Chinese students have continued to rise. UCAS reported a 56% decline in accepted applicants from EU countries on August 10th, with numbers falling from 22,430 in 2020 to 9,820 in 2021. Meanwhile, new non-EU applications saw a 9% rise to 37,310, with China rising from 7,490 in 2019 to 9,740 in 2021. Chinese applicants to UK universities now outstrip the total number of would-be students from the European Union, highlighting the impact of Brexit. Rule changes since Brexit, mean EU students now pay higher international fees at most British universities. 

The other key factor at play is the decline in popularity of other major international study destinations, the USA and Australia. Political tensions, visa issues, reports of racist attacks, and severe travel restrictions have worked together to knock these traditional study choices off the top spots, leaving the way open for the UK this year. Whilst the overall size of the market will not be clear until all students have enrolled, experts are unanimous that the UK’s share of this market will have increased this year.

A report by The Times revealed that at the Russell Group institutions, one in ten students is Chinese, with a fifth of Russell Group income coming from the China market. At Glasgow university, a massive 31% of total tuition income comes from Chinese students. Overall, international students in the United Kingdom pay four times more than their British fellows and, as such, are disproportionately important to university revenues. 

Table showing the income from Chinese students

A lucrative audience for the tourism industry

According to our research, Chinese students have, on average, four times the disposable income of British students and prioritise their spend on travel, leisure, entertainment and fashion. Many of the most affluent spend even more. They are keen to travel around the UK and throughout Europe, to make the most of their opportunities to travel whilst they are studying overseas. 

These students offer vast potential for British and European tourism this year and next and, due to the current complexities and cost in returning to China, they are likely to remain in Europe over the university holidays, providing a great opportunity for travel operators, destinations, attractions, retailers and hotels to engage with them and encourage them to visit. 

This is a group of affluent, curious, well educated millennials. They want to experience as much as they can and, as long as they feel they are safe to do so, if they are inspired by a social post, an image, a video, or simply a recommendation from a fellow student, they will seek out your brand. And, if they have a good experience, they will be sure to share it with friends and family in China, thus influencing visitation from the huge Chinese outbound tourism market as soon as borders reopen.

If you are interested in promoting your brand to the Chinese students in the UK, please get in touch and we can take you through some of the best ways to reach them.

You may also be interested in these related topics.

Chinese students research study for Copenhagen. 

Chinese students could add £1.7bn to British Tourism this year. https://guanxi.group/news/chinese-students-could-add-1-7bn-to-british-tourism-this-year

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