Are branch campuses set to wither in China?


In recent years, international branch campuses (IBCs) in China have been one of the options for middle-class Chinese parents whose children miss out on entry to prestigious domestic universities. Although their fees are high by Chinese standards, parents have seen them as an investment in their children’s human capital and social status – particularly as branch campuses are seen as a gateway to postgraduate study in the West.

However, over the past year, IBCs have struggled to recruit. The quality of their admitted students for this year – indicated by their scores in the gao kao, China’s national college entrance examination – suddenly dropped, and some IBCs still did not recruit enough students.

Was Covid to blame? It is certainly true that the pandemic has made studying abroad both practically difficult and less attractive – not merely for health reasons but also because of the anti-Chinese sentiment that Covid-19 is perceived to have incited in Western countries, with which China’s relations were already becoming strained. Last June, for example, China’s Ministry of Education issued a warning against studying in Australia.

However, although Chinese applications to the US and Australia dropped last year, applications to UK universities increased, which suggests that students are still interested in studying abroad, even if they have become less keen on certain destinations. Therefore, you might expect IBCs’ attraction as gateway institutions to be undiminished.

So perhaps their recruitment struggles have more to do with their marketing strategies. Although the two oldest British IBCs in China – the University of Nottingham Ningbo and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University – were established more than a decade and a half ago, that is not a long period for a university to establish its own brand – particularly as the very concept of a joint-venture IBC is novel in China.

Hence, IBCs remain more reliant than their domestic competitors on marketing and active recruitment. However, although IBCs are more active than Chinese public universities in promoting their programmes, they mainly imitate the latter’s recruitment strategies because most of their heads of marketing and heads of recruitment are from traditional Chinese media agencies and Chinese public universities, respectively.

Their strategies are heavily reliant on face-to-face contact with parents and students. During the pandemic, high school visits and higher education exhibitions were cancelled. This situation has eased in 2021 and IBCs, stung by last year’s problems, are vigorously recruiting students again. However, their reliance on face-to-face methods appears undiminished. For instance, while almost all IBCs have social media accounts, some still do not have overarching digital marketing strategies and others fail to implement theirs.

Even once Covid-19 is consigned to history, IBCs may need to do better. The attractiveness of studying abroad for Chinese students is partly based in the idea that they will benefit from the expertise of countries that are more economically advanced than China. However, China’s own economy is now the second largest in the world. This ensures that there are more students who can afford the cost of studying at an IBC, but it also means that the West is losing its advantages over China in terms of what it can offer to students – particularly given that modern Chinese students display more ethnocentrism than recent previous generations.

China’s development has also had a positive effect on the quality of its public universities. Increasing numbers of them figure in world rankings, and the top ones continue to rise ever higher. Thus, Chinese students are more convinced than ever that they can enjoy high-quality higher education for a lower price at a domestic university – particularly given that expanding capacity and falling birth rates mean that it is becoming easier to win places.

For all of these reasons, IBCs in China will have to up their recruitment game if they are to survive in the medium to long term. Traditional face-to-face methods may be practically viable again, but they are unlikely to be enough.

Author Bio: Hongqing Yang is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, where he was previously manager of the International Doctoral Innovation Centre. He has also been director of student affairs at the Guangdong Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Wenzhou-Kean University.