Attention Overseas Universities: How to Reach Chinese Students

How to reach Chinese students

Chinese students typically are perceived as hardworking and wealthy. With the “China dream” and the country’s “common prosperity” ambition, quality education is gaining relevance quickly. 

Particularly, wealthy families increasingly send their children to overseas universities and higher education institutions in search of the best education as well as reputable degrees, the opportunity to gain life experience abroad, to form connections with other ambitious students, and create a lifetime Guanxi network.

Do you represent an international secondary education institution, offering Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees as well as Ph.D. programs, and would like to reach and enroll more Chinese students?

Take a deep dive into the secondary education market and Chinese university students abroad with China Gravy in this article.

The Global Secondary Education Market

Having a good education is one pillar to create a stable and prosperous life. Normally, the better the education, the better (and higher paid) the job prospects. 

The global education market is growing steadily and is estimated to exceed 10 trillion USD by 2030. Overall, more than 600 million students are enrolled in secondary education worldwide and over 220 million students are enrolled in tertiary education globally these days

In China, about 91 million students are enrolled in secondary education, and around 52 million students have enrolled in post-secondary education. 

In terms of studying abroad, approximately 700,000 Chinese choose to obtain higher education outside of their home country. These students typically come from well-off families who also provide them with ample spending money. 

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to attract them to study at your higher education institution abroad?

Chinese Students Abroad & At Home

Now, let’s take a look at how many Chinese study at home and abroad, and what their favorite subjects are.

Chinese Students at Home

In comparison, the number of undergraduates from public colleges and universities in China reached a record high of around eight million students in 2020. This corresponds to an average increase of 3% in the last few years. 

Around half the students earned a Bachelor’s degree, while the other half earned a more practically oriented short-cycle degree. Almost 730,000 Master’s and Doctor’s degree students graduated from public colleges and universities in China in 2020.

Chinese Education System

In China, secondary education has two routes: academic secondary education (six years) and specialized secondary education (two-four years). The system includes Bachelor, Master, and Doctoral degrees, and is also open to foreign students. Among the most popular universities in China are Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Fudan University. Admission to higher education in China requires taking the National Higher Education Entrance Exam (Gao Kao). 

Due to China’s large population, the number of applicants outweighs the spots at China’s 2,000 universities and colleges. This is one of the reasons why some Chinese students go abroad for their higher education.

The Chinese Ministry of Education underlines the role of higher education in China as a significant part in economic growth, scientific progress, and social development.

Favored Majors

Recently, the most favored majors among Chinese Bachelor students and short-cycle degree students are in the areas of finance, civil, engineering, international trade, economics, accounting, medicine, law, and English language. 

The graduate employment rate is generally stable in China (more than 90%) over the past years on average. Engineering, technology, IT, and science majors are evergreens with very good employment chances and typically a high salary. 

Graduates that struggle to find a job usually graduated from less technical majors and also lack soft skills like communication and critical thinking.

While the average monthly salary of a university graduate in China has increased by more than 120% in recent years, the rising living costs in tier one cities like Beijing or Shanghai often force young graduates to return to their hometowns or seek employment in second and third tier cities. 

Chinese Study Abroad

The number of Chinese students going abroad for their university studies keeps increasing since 2010 – on average by 6% YoY. According to the latest Chinese student study abroad statistics, more than 700,000 Chinese students leave their home country every year to pursue higher education abroad.

This makes China the largest country of origin for international students worldwide. While these numbers have temporarily dipped during the Covid-pandemic, recovery has already begun.

In 2022, the US (~340,000) and the UK (120,000) are the preferred destinations for Chinese students and their parents. In Australia, there are around 155,000 Chinese students, 75,000 in Canada, and 90,000 in Japan. Other popular studying abroad destinations among Chinese students include Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, France, and Macao.

Now, you may ask yourself, why do so many Chinese students study abroad? There are a variety of reasons: 

  • tuition fees abroad may be more affordable – including housing
  • foreign universities are often reputable and internationally acclaimed
  • studying abroad is a “fancy status symbol” in Chinese society, especially for parents
  • gaining experience living in another country – without parents and family – and broadening their horizon
  • forming international connections with peers
  • improving English skills – often limited in mainland China
  • fostering creativity and critical thinking as Chinese schools and universities typically focus on repetition and memorizing
  • expanding cultural (business) interaction skills
  • gain “soft skills” like interpersonal and communication skills in addition to “hard skills”
  • travel the world and explore overseas destinations
  • the apartment that Chinese parents normally buy for their children when studying abroad becomes an investment property after they complete their studies

All this typically results in better employment opportunities for Chinese students who study abroad in the tight Chinese job market. Chinese graduates from foreign universities often return to their home country, to be closer to their families and because of the vast cultural differences.

Typical Requirements for Chinese Overseas Students

The process is typically straightforward. Students need a valid passport, recent photographs, and potentially further supporting documents like proof of university enrollment. They need to fill out the application form and submit it together with the fee, potentially undergo an interview and…wait.

As a representative of an international higher education institution, make sure to show your prospective Chinese students that this process is easy and straightforward, and provide assistance where you can.

  • UK: Tier 4 (General) student visa, 363 GBP application fee, processing time typically is 21 working days
  • USA: F-1 visa is most common, 160 USD application fee, processing time can take up to 6-8 months
  • Canada: Student permit, approx. 150 CAD application fee, processing time can take up to 90 days
  • Australia: Student visa (subclass 500), 650 AUD application fee, processing time can take 30-80 days
  • Japan: Student visa, 3,000 JPY application fee, processing time typically 5 working days

Scholarships for Chinese Students

Chinese students may be eligible for a variety of scholarships. Make sure to show your students how to obtain them:

Baidu Baijiahao & Baidu Baike

In this high-ranking Baijiahao article for liuxue on Baidu, the top destinations for studying abroad are the US, the UK, Australia, Japan, and Canada. Baijahao is Baidu’s content creation platform.

Baidu Baijaho offers a variety of services like forums, news aggregation, and much more. Users can upload videos, articles, and images that can be monetized.

Likewise, the top countries for Chinese students to study in, according to Baidu Baike, the Chinese “Wikipedia” are the same as on Baidu Baijahao: the US, the UK, Australia, Japan, and Canada.

What’s noteworthy is that the US is losing attractiveness to Chinese students in favor of the UK due to the overall political situation.

Baidu Index

Next, Baidu Index is a powerful tool to anticipate trends from online users in China, based on search volume data. For “留学” (study abroad) the index (not the actual search volume) remained stagnant between 2019-2021. 

As the world has been overcoming the aftermath of the Covid-pandemic, the index for studying abroad has been rising since 2022.

The average daily index (median since the year 2011) is about 4,400 (2,500 desktop + 1,900 mobile) for “留学” (study abroad) and the monthly index is around 132,000 with the actual monthly search volume being almost 59,000 according to the Baidu Keyword Planner tool.

Baidu Index search for “留学” (study abroad)
Source: (Q4/2022)

In terms of demographics, Baidu Index reveals that search queries for “留学” (study abroad) mostly came from Guangdong province ever since the data was recorded in 2013. Next are Beijing, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shandong provinces.

Baidu Index search queries for “留学” (study abroad) according to provinces
Source: (Q4/2022)

In the screenshot below you can see the provinces where users searched for “留学” in the last 90 days (3 months).

Guangdong province still ranks first as it is a very large and populous province. But Beijing takes rank eight – possibly due to its political setting fewer people strive to go abroad. Zhejiang ranks fifth and Henan ranks fourth in this timeframe.

Baidu Index search queries for “留学” (study abroad) according to provinces
Source: (Q4/2022)

Besides, most search queries for “留学” (study abroad) come from the age groups 20-29 and 30-39 (left side) and slightly more search queries are made by men (right side). Keep in mind that Baidu Index only displays the demographic data of the previous month.

search queries for “留学” (study abroad)  according to age and gender
Source: (Q4/2022)

For the topic of education, the main related search categories are as follows. Make sure to address these topics when targeting Chinese students.

  1. education
  2. audio/video: background information on studied topics
  3. information/news: background information on studied topics
  4. health: insurance and medical care when studying (abroad)
  5. reading/learning/books: background information on studied topics
  6. software/apps: software for learning, Chinese apps like WeChat to connect with fellow (Chinese) students
  7. food/drinks: relevant for campus life
  8. finance: tuition financing, but also the local real estate market as many wealthy Chinese buy apartments near campus for the children when studying abroad
  9. travel: making the most out of studying at a destination away from home
  10. leisure/hobbies
education: main related search categories
Source: (Q4/2022)

Finally, the autocomplete function on Baidu reveals the most common search terms related to “留学” (study abroad). Most of these terms refer to Chinese study-abroad agencies, which underlines the importance of entering partnerships with agencies when targeting Chinese students at an international university.

The UK is the only country that comes up as a result of the search query “留学” (study abroad). Therefore, it can be concluded that it is most relevant for Chinese students seeking international higher education. Besides, the job prospects for students after completing their international studies are highly relevant to them.

The first four results are agencies or agents. This underlines the importance of gaining agents and agencies as partners to enroll Chinese students in international secondary and tertiary education programs.

  • 留学咨询: Education consulting (agent)
  • 留学中介: Study abroad agency (agent)
  • 留学机构哪家最好: Which is the best study abroad agency (agent)
  • 留学中介十大排名: Top ten study abroad intermediaries (agent)
  • 留学申请: Study abroad application
  • 留学生免税车: Tax-free car for international students
  • 留学需要具备哪些条件: What are the requirements for studying abroad?
  • 留学英国: Study in the UK
  • 留学生回国如何找工作: How to find a job when an international student returns home
  • 留学去哪个国家好: Which country is best to study in?
autocomplete function on Baidu for Chinese students
Source: (Q4/2022)

How to Market to Chinese Students (And Parents)

Reaching Chinese students – and even more importantly in Chinese culture, their parents and family as the decision-making body and financer – is a straightforward process, if you understand the Chinese culture and its digital trends.

Here’s your step-by-step guide for digital marketing of higher education institutions (public, private) to generate leads among Chinese students:

1. Chinese Social Platforms

To begin with, there are countless Chinese social media apps, some evergreens, and new ones popping up like mushrooms. When selecting the right social media platforms to promote your secondary education institution, it’s wise to keep in mind who you are targeting. Therefore, we’ve divided Chinese social media into two categories: targeting Chinese parents, and Chinese students.

Chinese Parents

As China’s most popular app WeChat is maturing, it is predestined to reach parents as decision-makers for their children’s education. Older online users (parents) tend to read longer and more informational content on WeChat.

Your higher education institution can

  • create a WeChat brand account: to generate organic traffic
  • run PPC ads on your WeChat brand account: to generate paid traffic (if you have an additional budget)

Your university can mainly use the WeChat account to communicate with potential students, agents, and so on. Using a WeChat CRM tool (Customer Relationship Management) makes it easy to manage student leads and sales on this platform. Besides, you can link to your WeChat account from your Chinese website.

Chinese Students

While the Chinese youth also uses WeChat, they are more drawn to trendier platforms like Douyin, Xiaohongshu, and Weibo.

Register official brand accounts on these platforms to generate organic traffic, run PPC ads for paid traffic, and collaborate with Chinese KOL/KOC influencers who are close to your university to reach students in the Middle Kingdom. You can find influencers by following hashtags around studying abroad.

Example: International University on Douyin

This is the official account of the University of Liverpool on Douyin, showcasing student interviews and shorts, answering questions in both Chinese as well as the English language with Chinese subtitles.

With 9,916 followers and 36,000 likes, the University of Liverpool has a good reach on Douyin.

example: University of Liverpool on Douyin
Source: Douyin app (Q4/2022)
Example: Douyin Hashtags

Use popular studying abroad hashtags like the ones below to boost your posts.

Hashtag (Chinese)Hashtag (English)Streams/video viewsNumber of Videos/posts
留学Study abroad (simplified Chinese)17,250,000,000586,000
留學Study abroad (traditional Chinese)300,000,0004,582
留学日常Daily study abroad5,440,000,000243,000
留学留学Study abroad130,000,0001,845
英国留学Study in the UK3,200,000,000163,000
留学生活Study abroad life2,570,000,000110,000
韩国留学Study in Korea2,970,000,00076,000
popular studying abroad hashtags on Douyin
Source: Douyin app (Q4/2022)
Example: KOL Influencer on Douyin

This influencer, liusanjie767, has 130,000 followers. Foreign universities can invite Chinese influencers to their campus to gain authentic reach in the Middle Kingdom. Besides, these influencers can serve as ambassadors resp. contact point for students. An influencer with a large reach who has graduated from that university and knows the faculty would be the perfect match.

You can find influencers who are specialized in the topic of “study abroad” by searching for “留学” in people’s account names or searching for the hashtag “留学” and displaying related personal accounts. This way, you can find out which individuals continuously post about the topic, have a large reach, and are authentic.

Douyin education influencer example
Source: Douyin app (Q4/2022)
Example: International University on Xiaohongshu

This is the official account of the University of York on Xiaohongshu – China’s “Instagram”. 

In fact, Xiaohongshu has become one of the most important platforms in China, especially for the travel/education/real estate industry. That’s because Weibo as the Chinese Twitter is struggling with a large amount of bots/fake accounts, and Douyin may be too general. Xiaohongshu has always been interesting for the travel and cosmetics/beauty industry and has now emerged as a top platform.

Example: International University on Xiaohongshu
Source: Xiaohongshu app (Q4/2022)
Example: Xiaohongshu Notes

On Xiaohongshu, “留学” (study abroad) has 6 million notes, created by its users, which aim to recommend a product or service. On the other hand, “留学” (study abroad) has 586,000 posts on Douyin.

Xiaohongshu notes
Source: Xiaohongshu app (Q4/2022)

2. Agents

Search for study abroad agents on Baidu, WeChat, and other Chinese social media. 

You can search for “留学机构” (study abroad agency) or “留学中介” (study abroad agent). They will typically speak English and work commission-based, and the best way to contact them is through WeChat.

3. Partnerships with Chinese Universities

Identify Chinese universities that offer similar classes, modules, and diplomas to your university. Contact them to start discussing a partnership and student exchange program. It might be easier to start with Chinese universities that have existing partnerships and are therefore familiar with the process and speak English.

4. Chinese-Focused Website

Translate your university website content into Chinese language, adhere to cultural specialties, and answer questions that may be of specific interest to Chinese students and their parents.

Make sure to specifically mention the environment (city, country), everyday life on and off campus, student associations, food and travel options, student work opportunities, how to get a visa, enrollment fees, and contact to the nearest Chinese embassy. 

Social media can give an overview and invite people to find out more, and your website should provide detailed in-depth information.

Keep in mind that you should be hosting your website in China, which is recommended for SEO and loading time purposes. Alternatively, you can host your Chinese website outside of mainland China, but geographically close, with high speed and cloud hosting to get through the Great Firewall of China

5. SEO & PPC for Baidu

China’s most popular search engine Baidu (Google is blocked in mainland China) helps Chinese students and their parents to specifically search for educational information worldwide and inform themselves to make an educated decision.

Optimizing your international website for China’s top search engine Baidu (SEO) will boost your organic search results. At the same time, you can run paid PPC ads on Baidu.

Here is an example Baidu ad of the study abroad agency “Manbosi”.

example Baidu ad of the study abroad agency “Manbosi”

Baidu PPC Data

Optimize your Chinese website for these Baidu top-volume keywords related to “留学” (study abroad) and data from the Baidu PPC Keyword Tool, and consider running ads for them.

Chinese KeywordEnglish KeywordMonthly search volume
出国留学找机构looking for a study abroad agency178,689
高中生留学study abroad as a high school student68,597
出国留学study abroad63,519
专科去留学college to study abroad62,923
留学study abroad58,667
出国留学的条件和要求conditions and requirements for studying abroad31,179
广州留学机构Guangzhou study abroad agency12,722
出国留学费用study abroad fees10,705
出国留学机构study abroad agency8,577
去英国留学一年的费用是多少how much does it cost for 1 year to study in the UK8,251
留学机构咨询study abroad agency consulting7,578
美国本科留学undergraduate study in the United States7,492
金吉列留学Jinjilie study abroad7,142
Source: Baidu PPC Keyword Tool (Q4/2022)

The data above reveals that 

  1. agencies are searched the most
  2. most searches are from Guangdong (Guangzhou) – in line with the Baidu Index in the previous section
  3. the UK is the most popular country for studying abroad, the USA the second-most popular
  4. Jinjilie study abroad agency has the most reach on Baidu 
  5. transparent fees are important to have on a university website targeting Chinese students

Baidu Tieba & Zhihu

Besides, Baidu Tieba, a Chinese online forum managed by an online community, has this board on studying abroad with 750,000 followers as of Q4/2022. 

Overseas universities can use this forum to promote their curriculums and answer questions. The same is true for Baidu’s Q&A Zhihu, which is similar to Quora.

Baidu Tieba and Baidu Zhihu rank well on the Baidu search engine, and therefore entries in these forums help to boost the SEO of your Chinese website though high-value backlinks.

searching for “留学” (study abroad) on Baidu Tieba
Source: (Q4/2022)

6. Online PR

Increase the reach of your international university in the Middle Kingdom, and generate more leads and inquiries on your Chinese website and social media by running PR articles in online and print media like blogs and newspapers (e.g. ifeng, sohu). This also generates valuable backlinks which in turn boosts the SEO of your Chinese website. Furthermore, you can also consider running free webinars on relevant topics.

For more information and services around higher education marketing to Chinese students get in touch with the China experts at China Gravy.

Case Study: Marketing for Universities

To give you an example of how the above information can look in practice, we’re taking a look at Coventry University in the UK.

Chinese website

This is the Chinese website of Coventry University which even has a student office in Beijing that is managed locally.

Coventry website (example) to attract Chinese students
Source: (Q4/2022)

Coventry University’s website is hosted in China with an ICP license. It has links to Weibo, WeChat, Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili (a video hosting platform like YouTube). Baidu Tongji is integrated into the site for analytics.

To further improve its online presence, Coventry University could integrate a live chat function and remove the connection to the server as this domain is blocked and therefore slows down the Chinese Coventry University website.

Chinese Social Media

As you can see on the screenshots below and comparing the latest posts, Douyin generates the most likes and WeChat the least. However, WeChat is particularly important to reach parents who prefer to read longer in-depth articles and posts. Besides, WeChat serves as the main communication tool in China, for universities, prospective students, and their parents.

Coventry University has had its WeChat account since May 2020, its Douyin account since 2020, and its Xiaohongshu account since July 2022. However, it seems that Coventry University stopped posting content on its Douyin account in 2021, and is focusing on Xiaohongshu platform now. They focus their content on food, graduate stories (e.g. how the classes and teacher are, what to do after obtaining the degree), and lifestyle topics. 

Besides, Coventry University’s content also shows foreigners speaking Chinese to create an inviting atmosphere. The message is that it’s easy to find friends at Coventry University, which is important for foreign students, and Chinese in particular, to find other Chinese and international friends.

Coventry presence on Chinese social media
Source: WeChat (app), Xiaohongshu (app), Douyin (app)

In fact, Xiaohongshu is ideal to promote the education industry as it is a fast-growing and trending platform in the Middle Kingdom. The platform has the most posts for studying abroad, and, therefore, an interested target audience as well as many education influencers. Studying abroad goes hand in hand with traveling, another focus topic of Xiaohongshu. In comparison, Weibo is gradually losing relevance in China unless it can get a handle on the issue of fake accounts and bots. 

On Douyin, more and more professional content can be seen (professionally edited videos), while Xiaohongshu remains more casual and videos are recorded in the moment with little post production.

This brings us to the end of this article on Chinese students abroad obtaining higher education as well as marketing strategies for universities to reach these students and their parents.

Chinese Students – The Takeaway

You have now gained insight into the secondary education market worldwide and the preference of Chinese students abroad. We’ve revealed the best strategies for social media marketing for universities, search engine optimization tactics, and more.

Marketing strategies for higher education institutions to engage Chinese students and their parents include

  1. being active on Chinese social media (focus on Xiaohongshu, WeChat for communication)
  2. collaborating with agencies and agents
  3. entering partnerships with Chinese universities
  4. creating a Chinese-focused website (detailed, transparent information like fees)
  5. optimizing your website for Baidu & running PPC ads
  6. run online PR campaigns

So, what’s next?

Are you ready to attract and enroll Chinese students for the Bachelor, Master, and Ph.D. programs in your international higher education institution? The China experts at China Gravy help you to get started. Redeem your free consultation!

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