Chinese students abroad: why they choose the UK and how they see their future.
|Abstract:||This article focuses on the recent phenomenon of an increasing number of Chinese students choosing to pursue their higher education in the UK. It explores those factors shaping both the students' decision to study in the UK and their preference to eventually live and work either in China or abroad. In addition, it examines the levels of (and reasons for) the career optimism/pessimism that these students feel. Inter alia, the study finds that it is the search for a quality higher education and a desire to improve their foreign language skills that cause these students to both look abroad and specifically choose the UK for their studies. UK degrees are seen as having greater career value than Chinese degrees. The majority feel that several years of living and working abroad would be best for their career prospects. The UK, USA and Australia are seen as the top three expatriation destinations. Finally, when considering their careers, more are optimistic than are pessimistic, especially the female students.|
School, Choice of
(Forecasts and trends)
Chinese students (Emigration and immigration)
Foreign study (Forecasts and trends)
Overseas Chinese (Educational aspects)
|Publication:||Name: China: An International Journal Publisher: East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore ISSN: 0219-7472|
|Issue:||Date: March, 2011 Source Volume: 9 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||Event Code: 010 Forecasts, trends, outlooks Computer Subject: Market trend/market analysis|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: China; United Kingdom Geographic Name: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 9CHIN China; 4EUUK United Kingdom|
Against the background of a recent and substantial rise in the number of Chinese coming to the UK for their higher education, this article reports the results of a survey of 188 Chinese students studying in the UK at Lancashire Business School, University of Central Lancashire in 2009. The respondents were either final year undergraduates or postgraduates and they responded to a self-report questionnaire consisting primarily of open-ended questions.
This research adds to a somewhat limited number of studies that have attempted to develop an appreciation of why Chinese students decide to study abroad and in particular, the UK. A key conclusion is that it is primarily the search for a quality higher education and a desire to improve foreign language skills that causes these Chinese students to look abroad, and specifically choose the UK for their studies. It also assesses the likelihood of these students, who have already had their first taste of living abroad, of becoming expatriates. While
recent research has indentified countries that Chinese students may find attractive as potential destinations for expatriation, this article explores the thinking behind such choices and specifically why some destinations are seen as more attractive than others. The UK, USA and Australia are seen as the top three expatriation destinations, and the most cited reason for choosing one country over another is a strong economy and the job/career prospects that go with it. A majority express the view that several years of living and working abroad as expatriates would boost their long-term career prospects.
Studying abroad costs students dearly both monetarily and in terms of effort, but their hope is that such an investment will be rewarded with enhanced career opportunities. To date, researchers have failed to examine the career optimism of such students. However, this study examines the levels of (and reasons for) career optimism expressed by these Chinese students studying in the UK. It finds that more are optimistic than pessimistic and that in explaining their optimism, they refer most frequently to the qualifications and skills that they are acquiring. A majority of respondents felt that Chinese employers would value UK degrees more highly than Chinese degrees.
UK Universities and Chinese Students: A Mutual Attraction
In recent years, there has been a substantial rise in the number of Chinese students choosing to pursue their higher education (HE) in the UK. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveals that China sends more
He students to the UK than does any other country. (1) There were 47,035 Chinese nationals studying in UK HE institutions in the 2008-2009 academic year. 11 years earlier, the number was just 2,883.
While Chinese students are enthusiastic about UK universities, it is also realistic to say that UK universities are enthusiastic about attracting and enrolling Chinese students. Nania and Green report that at the University of Essex, Chinese students in the 2003-2004 academic year provided funding for the university equal to 29 per cent of that provided by the UK government. (2) With the UK government planning for (at the time of writing--May 2010) a substantial reduction in the money it grants to universities, it seems possible that UK universities will become even more dependent on overseas students as a vital source of income. Non-EC students pay significantly higher fees than UK students and UK universities cannot afford to ignore them, as a recent headline in The Daily Telegraph serves to illustrate: "Overseas Students Help Plug Funding Gap". (3)
Of course, universities in the UK and indeed elsewhere cannot rely on a continuous and increasing intake of Chinese students. According to one forecaster, the number of Chinese students studying abroad is likely to peak in 2011. (4) After that, the number may well fall due to demographic changes and a decline in the number of Chinese of university age. The continuing rapid expansion of the university sector in China may well be another reason why the number of Chinese students studying abroad is expected to decline in future years. The Chinese university entrance examination (Gao kao) was re-introduced in 1977 after the Cultural Revolution had run its course, and while in 1977 there were only 220,000 places available, 30 years later, the number of places had risen to 5.6 million. (5)
While the future may see a reduction in Chinese students abroad, evidence from a 2010 study by the Beijing International Education Institute (BIEI) reveals that interest in studying abroad seems to be currently undiminished and the top three destinations for those intending to pursue their higher education abroad were the USA (43 per cent), the UK (19 per cent) and Australia (12 per cent). (6) Of those wanting to study in the UK, 70 per cent intended to study business subjects. The study found that over half of those intending to go abroad planned eventually to take a master's degree at a foreign university.
Chinese students are without doubt important to UK universities and every effort should be made to understand why they have, and may continue to choose, the UK for their higher education. Writing in this journal, Bai suggested that they may decide to study abroad because of a Chinese mentality that "things foreign are better than things Chinese". (7) But why might they specifically choose the UK? Shen sees the popularity of the UK among Chinese students as being in part due the shorter period of time required for a UK degree. (8) (The standard undergraduate degree takes three years in the UK and four years in China while a taught postgraduate degree normally takes one year in the UK and at least two years in China.) Lowe found that Chinese students favoured UK universities over Chinese universities as a means of improving their English language skills and because they perceived UK universities as having a good reputation and high standards. (9) Certainly, there are several high profile UK universities that have been ranked over many years among the top universities worldwide and to an extent, the reputation of UK universities as a whole may benefit from the standing and high profile of these few. The Times Higher Education reveals in its "World university rankings for 2010" that three of the "top ten" universities are in the UK, and the other seven are in the USA. (10)
British Council research shows that Chinese students choose the UK for its high-quality degrees. Jazreel Goh Yeun Yeun (Director of Education Marketing with the British Council in Beijing) is quoted as saying: "Employers in China are extremely interested to recruit these UK graduates". (11) However, UK universities cannot afford to be complacent about their "quality" advantage. Lowe offers evidence that Chinese students feel that the quality difference between UK and Chinese universities is narrowing over time. (12)
It may well be that for some, studying abroad was not their preference but rather something effectively forced upon them. Even after the recent expansion of the Chinese university sector, 4.4 million candidates taking the university entrance examination in 2007 failed to gain a place. (13) Lowe suggests that many of the Chinese students he surveyed had to look abroad for their higher education as they had not gained a place at a Chinese university. Might these students be attracted to some UK universities because those UK universities accept overseas applicants with relatively low entrance qualifications? Hacket and Colchester found admission tutors at several UK universities who acknowledged that they were prepared to treat overseas applicants more leniently than UK applicants because overseas students paid higher course fees. (14) Of course, some caution is necessary here as this "investigation" has not been subjected to the same scrutiny and refereeing that academic research faces. That said, its findings may still strike many as being somewhat disconcerting.
While students choosing to live and study abroad may experience many uncertainties and have to make significant lifestyle changes, Chinese students may be better equipped than others to cope with these uncertainties and changes. (15) Hofstede sees the Chinese as tending towards low uncertainty avoidance and therefore displaying a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity and being more open to change. (16) Certainly, Gu and Maley conclude from their research that even though Chinese students in the UK face a number of challenges, most seem to adapt to their new living and study environments and their overall experience is one of worthwhile personal growth. (17)
The current study explores (inter alia): (i) why Chinese students choose to pursue their HE abroad, and specifically in the UK; and (ii) the views of these students regarding the relative career value of British and Chinese university degrees.
The Attraction of Living and Working Abroad
In a paper for the Migration Policy Institute, Skeldon sees China as one of the major migratory nations with an estimated 33 million ethnic Chinese living outside China. (18) He reports that a feature of Chinese migration in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is "the emergence of Europe as a significant destination". Skeldon feels that it is difficult to know precisely how many Chinese are living in Europe as many may not have their presence recorded and counted. However, there is no doubt that their migration to Europe increased significantly after the Chinese government's economic reforms of the late 1970s and the relaxation of controls on emigration that followed as China opened to the rest of the world.
Bai points out that many of the Chinese who studied at overseas universities in the 1990s chose to stay on and work abroad after graduation. (19) No country can afford to lose many of its ablest young people. Tung points out that Chinese companies certainly need these people "who possess competencies to compete successfully in the global economy". (20) She continues: "Without this pool of human talent, China's economic growth will slow and its outward foreign direct investment aspirations will be thwarted". However, Zhau and Zhu reported in this journal that in order to reverse this brain drain, from the late 1990s onwards, the Chinese government has made what have been successful efforts to entice many of these people back to China. (21)
Those of Chinese ethnicity made up 0.4 per cent of the UK population in 2008 and numbered 256,000. The period 2001 to 2007 saw a 75 per cent increase in the number of Chinese living in the UK. This was proportionately the largest increase among all the ethnic groups making up the UK population. (22) May some of those Chinese who study in the UK want to settle there once they have completed their studies? Bai's study of Chinese students in New Zealand reveals that 37 per cent planned to stay on in New Zealand, either permanently or medium-term, after completing their studies. (23) Selmer and Lam found that individuals spending part of their formative years away from their home culture establish a sense of relationship with their host country's culture, (24) while Collings and Scullion suggest these same individuals, because of their cross-cultural experience, may be both attracted to internationally mobile careers and better able to adapt to new cultures. (25) It seems not improbable that many of those Chinese who have already chosen to study in the UK may also be attracted to the prospect of living and working abroad some time in the future and they may well choose the UK for their expatriation on the grounds of an existing familiarity and sense of relationship with it.
Among other things, this study of Chinese students in the UK explores the factors they take into account in determining: (i) the desirability of becoming expatriate workers at some stage in their careers; (ii) their choice of countries for expatriation; and (iii) the length of time they feel they might live and work abroad.
A recent 17-country survey shows that Chinese respondents rank the highest in terms of "personal optimism" with 76 per cent expecting their personal situation and lives to get better in the medium term.(26) From a career point of view, a state of optimism can be a desirable thing. Creed, Patton and Bartrum found in their study of Australian young people that if respondents were by nature optimistic, they tended to engage in higher levels of career planning, develop more career-related goals and be more confident in their career decision-making. (27) They were also high in self-esteem. These same authors report that optimism performs a key function in driving the development of career goals and expectations and also keeps individuals committed to these key activities, even in hard times. (28)
However, it may be that the current generation of Chinese students studying overseas has less reason to be optimistic about career opportunities than that which came earlier in the 1980s and 1990s. Bai points out that the Chinese students studying abroad in recent years are much younger, have a much lower level of Chinese pre-university education and may not be as well regarded by potential employers than those who have gained places at China's own universities through the highly competitive entrance examination. (29) Bai also explains that since 2003, China has experienced an oversupply of graduates, especially in commerce and computer sciences, and that graduate unemployment has became an uncomfortable reality. A further aim here is to explore how optimistic or pessimistic Chinese students studying in the UK are about their career prospects and to determine the reason for their optimism or pessimism.
With particular reference to business students, this study was designed specifically to explore:
* Why they (i) decide to pursue their higher education abroad and (ii) specifically choose the UK for their studies;
* Their views regarding the relative value of UK and Chinese university awards;
* The factors they take into account in determining (i) the desirability of becoming expatriate workers at some stage during their careers, (ii) the length of time they think they might live and work abroad, and (iii) their choice of countries for expatriation; and
* How optimistic or pessimistic they are about their career prospects and the reasons for their optimism or pessimism.
The study's sample consisted of 188 students from a cross-section of provinces in The People's Republic of China (excluding Hong Kong). All were studying at the Lancashire Business School at the University of Central Lancashire, England. While these respondents came from just one university, there is no reason to suppose they differed significantly from Chinese students at the business schools of other UK universities. BIEI research, already cited, showed that 70 per cent of the Chinese wanting to study at UK universities intended to study business subjects. (30) It may well be that Chinese students studying business subjects have somewhat different views on some of the issues examined here, compared to, for example, Chinese students majoring in psychology or engineering. Readers are therefore cautioned against regarding the findings and discussion here as being representative of Chinese students across all disciplines.
The respondent group consisted of 118 males and 70 females. They were either final year undergraduates (N = 83) or postgraduates (N = 105). The average age of the undergraduate respondents was 21 years and 2 months, and for postgraduates, 22 years and 9 months. A self-completion questionnaire was employed. This method meant that data could be gathered from a relatively large number of respondents who could be assured of their anonymity and would therefore feel more willing to reveal their true and unfiltered thoughts.
The questionnaire was comprised predominantly of open-ended questions. For example, Item 1 asked, "Why did you decide to study abroad? (Please give all relevant factors/reasons)". Some of the items on the questionnaire paired closed-ended and open-ended questions. For example, Item 3 first asked: "If you are to find career success in the PRC, how important is a postgraduate qualification? (Please circle one of the following): very important, quite important, not very important, of no importance". The same item then went on to explore those thoughts behind the previous response by asking: "What are your reasons for choosing the answer you did?" The open-ended questions used in the questionnaire suited the exploratory focus of this study, enabling respondents to answer in their own words and reveal issues and considerations that the researcher could not have anticipated and incorporated into closedended type questions.
As all those surveyed had been judged competent in English as a condition of their acceptance onto their UCLAN courses, it was decided to use an English language questionnaire. The questionnaire was piloted with 10 Chinese students and minor modifications were made to wording as a consequence of their comments and suggestions. The survey itself was conducted between May and September of 2009 and respondents were asked to complete the questionnaire in class time. All who were asked agreed, thus the response rate was 100 per cent.
Findings and Discussion
Reasons for Studying Abroad and Specifically in the UK
The responses to the question, "Why did you decide to study abroad?" are summarised in Table 1. As can been seen, three main reasons were given.
Two-thirds of the respondents said that they had decided to study abroad because they were seeking a higher quality education. Some felt that overseas universities often had superior teaching styles and methods to Chinese universities. "The teaching approaches and teaching quality are seen as better than China" was one such response. Others focused upon the better resources that foreign universities were likely to have.
The second most mentioned (60 per cent) reason was the opportunity that studying abroad provided for developing second language skills, and there was clear indication that English was the favoured second language. Just over half the respondents (54 per cent) wrote of wanting to gain foreign country experience and develop an appreciation for different cultures and traditions. A 21-year-old wrote: "Experience different cultures--broaden my views and mind". It should be noted that while developing foreign language skills and experiencing a different culture can indeed be worthwhile, the other side to this is that due to the cultural adjustment and language challenges that they face, these students may perform less well in their degree programmes than those who are studying in their native language and culture. (31)
A 21-year-old from Guangzhou wrote: "I didn't do well in the Gao kao in China. But I really want to access a bright future so I go abroad to study". He was one of only 4 per cent of respondents who said they had looked abroad for their higher education because they had failed to gain a place at a Chinese university. Lowe found many of his Chinese respondents were studying in the UK because they had failed the Gao kao. (32) However, the respondents in this study were not asked a direct question about their Gao kao results and it may be that some, even though they were not asked to identify themselves, chose to omit this information because of the characteristic Chinese desire to save face. (33)
Reasons for Choosing UK Universities
While Lowe's study found that Chinese students felt the quality difference between UK and Chinese universities was narrowing over time, the perceived quality of a UK university education is still the main reason. (34) See Table 2 for the respondents' reasons for choosing the UK over other countries for their higher education. Two-thirds cited this reason: "Because education is best in world".
Many respondents believed Chinese university business education concentrated primarily on theory while UK university business education included skills and competencies in addition to theory. They valued this UK approach and many felt that Chinese employers valued UK degrees for that same reason. By contrast, it is interesting to note that Bai's study found that the main reason Chinese students chose New Zealand as their higher education destination was because of its affordability, that is, cheap tuition fees and low living costs. (35) A third of this study's respondents said developing their English language skills was the main reason for choosing the UK. One wrote: "I can learn the real and pure English". Some saw the English language as the key to the rest of the world. "English is the world language," wrote one of the respondents.
Views on the Value of UK and Chinese University Degrees
Respondents were asked: "How do you think employers in China value a UK university undergraduate degree?" and "How do you think employers in China value a UK university postgraduate degree?" In each instance, they were also asked: "What are your reasons for choosing the answer you did?" As already discussed, 65 per cent of the respondents gave "the quality of UK university education" as a reason for choosing the UK in preference to other countries for their university studies and so it is perhaps no surprise that a majority felt that Chinese employers would value both UK undergraduate degrees and postgraduate degrees over Chinese undergraduate and postgraduate degrees (see Tables 3 and 4).
There were four main reasons that respondents gave as to why they felt that Chinese employers would value UK degrees (be they undergraduate or postgraduate) over Chinese degrees. They again referred to the focus on business skills and competences. "UK universities focus on skills and practice but in China they focus on theory more," wrote a 23-year-old postgraduate. The three other reasons were less about the specific nature of the courses and more about employers seeing added value in the wider experience of living in the UK. Many felt that employers would appreciate their enhanced English language skills. One wrote: "More and more foreign companies are coming into China. Good English is therefore wanted". Others felt employers would value the fact that they had shown they could be independent and self-sufficient. Yet others believed that it was the cross-cultural experience they had as international students that employers valued.
Respondents who believed that Chinese employers see a UK degree as being worth less than a Chinese degree gave a number of reasons for holding this view. Some suggested that the increase in the number of Chinese students graduating from UK universities could lead to UK degrees being less valued by Chinese employers, i.e., causing the "product" to become less special and remarkable. "So many Chinese students now have a UK degree," wrote one. Other respondents felt that the ease of entry to UK universities reduced the value that Chinese employers placed on UK degrees.(36) "In PRC, most organisations know it is easy to enter a UK university, especially as an undergraduate", wrote a 23-year-old postgraduate. Other respondents commented: "It's easier to get a postgraduate degree in UK than China", and "Only top students in China can get a masters degree in a Chinese university. In comparison, it is much easier in the UK".
Others who thought Chinese employers would value Chinese degrees more highly than UK degrees said it was because of the extra study time it took to gain a Chinese degree. Typical comments were: "In China, it takes two to three years to finish a postgraduate degree compared to one year in UK. Most people think the students will learn more in three years" and "Chinese bachelor degrees take a longer time". These same respondents might be mystified by recent news of the UK Government encouraging universities to consider reducing many undergraduate programmes from three to two years as spending on higher education is reduced. (37) If adopted, this change could well be financially counter-productive. Overseas observers (Chinese and others) may see the UK undergraduate degree as having been devalued and as a consequence, fewer international students may choose the UK, thereby reducing the essential income that UK universities gain from international students. (38)
Of course, be they in the UK or China, some universities may be perceived as being superior to others in terms of their reputation and standing and a few respondents did comment on this as seen in this statement from a 22-year-old undergraduate: "If you graduated from a high reputation university, such as Oxford, it may be worth more than a PRC degree. However, if you graduated from an average UK university, it may be worth the same". When respondents were asked: "If you are to find career success in PRC, how important is a postgraduate qualification?" as shown in Table 5, 86.5 per cent of respondents felt a postgraduate qualification was either "very important" or "quite important". This corroborates the aforementioned BIEI study which found that many of those Chinese students intending to study abroad have a master's degree as their target qualification. (39)
In explaining why they saw the postgraduate qualification as important, students most often wrote about the considerable competition for graduate jobs in China and the need for applicants to offer employers more than just an undergraduate degree. A typical comment was: "Because there are too many undergraduate students competing for jobs, you need a postgraduate qualification".
Views on Living and Working Abroad
Nearly 40 per cent of the respondents answered either "Definitely yes" or "Most likely yes" to the question: "Do you think that in the future you would like to spend some time living and working abroad?" Even though this is a minority of the respondents, those who argue that China's economic progress might suffer if its graduates are lost to other countries might feel it is too large a minority. (40) Of course, as more of China's companies become global and expand abroad, there will be opportunities for careerists to take up expatriate positions on behalf of Chinese companies and in so doing, serve China's economic progress and satisfy their own desire to live and work abroad.
Respondents were also asked: "Which of the following do you think would best help your career prospects--(i) Always working in PRC, (ii) Sometimes working abroad, (iii) Always working abroad?". Two answered "always working abroad" and 163 answered "sometimes working abroad". Thus, while 88 per cent of those surveyed here felt that working abroad for all or some of the time would be best for their career prospects, only 39.5 per cent felt it was definite or most likely that they would spend some time in the future living and working abroad. However, a sizeable proportion of the respondents (43.5 per cent) were "unsure" and had yet to decide if living and working abroad was for them.
Responses to the question "What do you think are the positive aspects of living and working abroad?" are presented in Table 6. The perceived main positive aspects of living and working abroad were the enhancement of business skills and knowledge, experiencing other cultures, developing language skills and higher remuneration. Typical comments included: "Learning more advanced business skills and knowledge", "I can broaden my insights, learn about a different culture and way of life" and "Get a different experience, know more about the world and increase language skills".
As discussed earlier, various writers have recognised the considerable challenges that expatriates can face in terms of significant lifestyle changes and uncertainties. (41) This study's respondents saw adjusting to different ways and behaviours as the major negative aspect of living and working abroad (see Table 7). Comments from respondents included: "Culture shock", "The behaviour is different", "Spend time adapting to the new life" and "Because I've lived in China for so many years, the culture has become a habit and it's not easy for me to suit another".
Other key factors included language difficulties, "local" food and the cost of living. A relatively small number (6.5 per cent) thought they might be victims of prejudice. "I'm a little worried whether the local people will reject people from Asia" and "Risk of discrimination" were two such comments.
In answer to the question, "If you were to spend some time living and working abroad, how long would you like that period of time to be?", some 50 per cent of respondents chose one to three years and only nine per cent said they would like to spend six years or more abroad. It does seem that most of those who favour a period of expatriation intend it to be relatively short and they see themselves as spending most of their career years in China.
Commitment to their home country and families were the reasons most often given for choosing a shorter instead of longer period of expatriation. The following two comments were typical: "I don't want to live and work for a long time abroad. I want to live with my family" and "I think these years are enough because China is my root. I need to build our country". While recent history might show the Chinese to be a migratory nation with millions making their permanent home outside China, only eight of this study's respondents see permanently living and working abroad as an attractive proposition. (42) Three of these indicated that it was an "all or nothing" decision and if they did live and work abroad, it should be permanent. Another respondent seemed a little disillusioned with life in modern China: "It begins to be more and more difficult to live in China because of the increasing prices and increasing population and of course, the competition". Other reasons for choosing "always" were: "If I can get good job here. If not, I'll go back to China", "I like European culture very much", "Experience more cultures" and perhaps surprising to UK readers, "The UK's weather is good".
To determine their favoured expatriation destinations, respondents were asked: "If you were to live and work abroad, which countries would you prefer?". They were asked to indicate their first, second and third choices. To produce the rank order of preferred expatriation destinations, each first choice was scored as 3, each second choice was scored as 2 and each third choice was scored as 1. The four most favoured expatriation destinations were all English-language Anglo culture countries: UK, USA, Australia and Canada--in that order (see Table 8). Bai's study of Chinese students in New Zealand found New Zealand, Australia, USA, UK and Canada (in that order) to be the preferred host countries for those respondents intending to either work or study abroad after graduating, again, all English-language Anglo culture countries. (43)
When asked: "What are your reasons for choosing the answer you did?" a quarter of the respondents in this study said being familiar with a country and its way of life was a reason for their choice (see Table 9). "I've been in the UK and I know how to live in the UK", "I have lots of knowledge about the UK so I think I can relax to live and work in UK" and "The UK is much familiar to me" were three such statements.
However, the most popular reason (51 per cent of respondents) was the strength of a country's economy and its good job/career opportunities. The following were typical comments: "The career perspective seems to be better in these developed countries", "The economy situation" and "USA is the most economically powerful country in the world. There are many wonderful chances for me". A host country's standard of living and the attractiveness of its environment in both a "green" and aesthetic sense were also key factors considered when respondents chose potential expatriation destinations.
Respondents were asked: "How optimistic or pessimistic are you about your career prospects?" and they were given five alternatives to choose between ranging from "Very optimistic" to "Very pessimistic" (see Table 10).
Chinese people generally report more optimism for the future than do the people of many other countries and certainly in this study, more respondents reported optimism than pessimism with respect to their career prospects.(44) As already discussed, such career optimism is a desirable thing. (45) More females (57.5 per cent) than males (40.5 per cent) were either "very optimistic" or "optimistic" but it is not apparent as to why this was the case. Whether respondents were reporting a state of optimism, pessimism or being unsure, females and males offered similar explanations for their state.
In explaining why they were either "very optimistic" or "optimistic", respondents referred most frequently to their qualifications and skills, next to their motivation and then to their self-efficacy. Characteristic comments included: "I have HE in UK", "I know two languages", "My education and skills", "I'll try my best", "I have drive", "I believe in myself" and "I always believe I can do everything well". Less frequently, respondents referred to guanxi, planning ahead and optimism being their natural state. (46)
Those who were either "pessimistic" or "very pessimistic" most often explained it in terms of their lack of experience, poor language skills, lack of guanxi and fierce job competition. Many (44.5 per cent) were "unsure" but this is not uncommon. Respondents of many nationalities can find it difficult to decide just how optimistic or pessimistic they should be about their career prospects. Earlier studies by this author have shown that 38.5 per cent of Bulgarian, 36.1 per cent of Ethiopian and 30.7 per cent of UK respondents were "unsure" when asked the precise same question. (47) In this study, while more males (53.0 per cent) than females (30.5 per cent) were "unsure", it is not known why. In explaining why they were "unsure" of their career prospects, respondents most often mentioned high levels of competition for jobs, the future being uncertain and their lack of planning. Typical comments were: "Many are hunting for jobs in PRC", "I don't know the trend of future" and "Have not planned my career". Other reasons for being "unsure" were less often mentioned but included a lack of guanxi, having inadequate skills/abilities, lacking significant work experience and feeling that the value of degrees had been devalued. Comments relating to the latter included: "Many people think the value of a degree is less than before" and "Some companies in China do not think that international students can have good performance. They may think some use money to get the qualification".
Summary and Conclusion
The quality aspect of higher education was very much foremost in the minds of these Chinese students as they made their decisions about studying abroad. It was the most frequently mentioned reason for both deciding to study abroad (67 per cent of respondents) and for deciding to study specifically in the UK (65 per cent). It may be of comfort to UK universities to know that they are attractive to Chinese students for this reason rather that because of low tuition fees and living costs. (48) Many though, including the Russell Group, feel that current UK government public sector spending cuts put the international standing of UK universities under threat. (49) The argument is that underfunded UK universities will, over the coming years, lose their reputation for quality, especially if current high profile UK universities slip from the "top 10" in ranking such as "The Times Higher Education World University Rankings". (50) Chinese seeking quality may then look elsewhere.
Of course, these students could elect to stay at home and study in Chinese universities, many of which have been building their reputations for providing quality higher education and progressively climbing up the international league tables. But even if Chinese universities enhance their standing, they may still offer less than what many Chinese students are seeking. In this study, the respondents said they elected to study abroad because it gave them added value over studying in China; that is, the opportunity to develop foreign language skills (67 per cent of respondents) and the opportunity to gain foreign experience and learn about different cultures (54 per cent). The respondents also referred to these same "opportunities" in explaining (i) why they felt Chinese employers valued UK degrees more than Chinese degrees; and (ii) what they saw as the positive aspects of living and working abroad in their future careers.
As has been discussed, the increase in recent years in the number of Chinese living in the UK is the largest among all the ethnic groups making up the UK population. (51) Might many of those Chinese students who study in the UK want to stay on and live and work in the UK or perhaps return to the UK in the future as expatriates? Certainly, 88 per cent of this study's respondents felt that working abroad for all or some of the time would be best for their career prospects and more selected the UK than any other country as their expatriation destination. However, just because a careerist sees an action as being good for his career, it does not mean that he will necessarily take that action. Only 39.5 per cent felt that they would spend some time living and working abroad and 65.5 per cent of these wanted a relatively short expatriation of three years or less. The respondents saw a number of negative aspects to expatriation. Key among them were adjusting to different ways and behaviours, loneliness/missing key others and language difficulties.
While the UK was the favoured expatriate destination, other Anglo culture countries (USA, Australia and Canada) also proved to be popular choices. Evidence from this study combined with that from Bai's study suggest that for Chinese students studying abroad, the country they study in is more likely than any other country to be their first choice as a destination country when they consider expatriation. (52) This study also finds evidence that offers some support to Selmer and Lam's proposition; it does seem that individuals spending some of their formative years in a host culture may well develop a sense of relationship with that culture and may feel drawn to it, or a similar culture, in the future. (53) However, the country with that "familiar" culture may also need a strong economy and good job/career prospects (51 per cent of respondents looked for this in an expatriate destination) if it is to lure Chinese migrants.
It is encouraging to find that far more of the Chinese students, who have invested so much in terms of family finances and effort to go to the UK to study, were optimistic rather than pessimistic about their career prospects. In explaining their optimism, they most frequently referred to the qualifications they were in the process of acquiring and the skills (especially second language skills) they were developing. However, as has also been found in previous studies, a sizeable number were unsure as to whether they should be optimistic or pessimistic.54 The collected data on levels of career optimism did reveal some marked differences in male and female responses. It is distinctly clear that (i) more females than males were optimistic about their career prospects; and (ii) more males than females were unsure as to whether they should be optimistic or pessimistic. Why there are these gender-related response differences is unclear. Future research might usefully explore these differing positions.
(1) HM Office for National Statistics, "Population Trends Report", 2009, at
(2) S. Nania and S. Green, "Deus ex M.A. China: Are Mainland Chinese Students Saving Britain's Universities", Chatham House Briefing Note for The Royal Institute of International Affairs, ASP BN 04/01, July 2004.
(3) "Overseas Students Help Plug Funding Gap", The Daily Telegraph, 13 Feb. 2010, p. 4.
(4) J. Gill, "Chinese Demographics Pose Risk to UK Market Share", Times Higher Education, 26 June 2008.
(5) "Massive Expansion of University Rolls Causes Problems for China", People's Daily, 6 June 2007 at
(6) See details at
(7) L. Bai, "The Influence of Chinese Perceptions of Modernisation on the Value of Education: A Case Study of Chinese Students in New Zealand", China: An International Journal 6, no. 2 (2008): 208-36.
(8) W. Shen, Memorandum submitted to the UK Parliament Select Committee on Home Affairs, 2006, at
(9) J. Lowe, "Decision Making by Chinese Students Choosing UK and Chinese Universities: Full Research Report", ESRC End of Award Report, RES-000-22-0911 (Swindon: ESRC, 2007).
(10) "World University Rankings 2010", The Times Higher Education, at
(11) J. Chen, "UK Mulls Scholarships for Chinese Students", China Daily, 11 Aug. 2007 at
(12) J. Lowe, "Decision Making by Chinese Students".
(13) "Massive Expansion of University Rolls".
(14) G. Hacket and M. Colchester, "Chinese Students Oust UK Pupils from Top Universities", The Sunday Times, 13 May 2007, at
(15) The many uncertainties faced by those choosing to live abroad and the lifestyle changes they have to face are discussed in N.J. Adler, International Dimensions of Organizational Behaviour (Mason: Thomson South-Western, 2008), pp. 273-84, and T.R. Harris, R.T. Moran and S.V. Moran, Managing Cultural Differences (London: BH, 2007), pp. 260-304.
(16) G. Hofstede, Culture's Consequences, Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2001).
(17) Q Gu and A. Maley, "Changing Places: A Study of Chinese Students in the UK", Language and Intercultural Communication 8, no. 4 (2008): 224-45.
(18) R. Skeldon, "China: From Exceptional Case to Global Participant", Migration (2004): 4, at
(19) L. Bai, "The Influence of Chinese Perceptions".
(20) R.L. Tung, "The Human Resource Challenge to Outward Foreign Direct Investment Aspirations from Emerging Economies: The Case of China", International Journal of Human Resource Management 18, no. 5 (2007): 868.
(21) L. Zhau and J. Zhu, "China Attracting Global Talent: Central and Local Initiatives", China: An International Journal 7, no. 2 (2009): 323-35.
(22) HM Office for National Statistics, "Population Trends Report", 2009, at
(23) L. Bai, "The Influence of Chinese Perceptions".
(24) J. Selmerand and H. Lam, "Third-Culture Kids: Future Business Expatriates?" Personnel Review 33. no. 4 (2004): 430-45.
(25) D.G. Collings and H. Scullion, "Approaches to International Staffing", in Global Staffing, eds. H. Scullion and D.G. Collings (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), pp. 17-34.
(26) Pew Global Attitudes Survey, "China's Optimism: Prosperity Brings Satisfaction--and Hope", 2005, at
(27) P.A. Creed, W. Patton and D.A. Bartrum, "Multidimensional Properties of the Lot-R: Effects of Optimism and Pessimism on Career and Well-Being Related Variables in Adolescents", Journal of Career Assessment 10, no. 1 (2002): 42-61.
(28) W. Patton, D.A. Bartrum and P.A. Creed, "Gender Differences for Optimism, SelfEsteem, Expectations and Goals in Predicting Career Planning and Exploration in Adolescents", International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance 4, no. 3 (2004): 193-209.
(29) L. Bai, "Graduate Unemployment: Dilemmas and Challenges in China's Move to Mass Higher Education", China Quarterly no. 185 (2006): 128-44. Also, L. Bai, "The Influence of Chinese Perceptions".
(30) See details at
(31) V. Edwards, A. Ran and D. Li, "Uneven Playing Field or Falling Standards"; K. Cushner and A. Karim, "Study Abroad at University Level" and K.L. Choo, "The Implications of Introducing Critical Management Education".
(32) J. Lowe, "Decision Making by Chinese Students".
(33) A. Chen, "Towards Trans-cultural Understanding: A Harmony Theory of Chinese Communication", China Media Research 4, no. 4 (2008): 1-13.
(34) J. Lowe, "Decision Making by Chinese Students".
(35) L. Bai, "The Influence of Chinese Perceptions".
(36) G. Hacket and M. Colchester, "Chinese Students Oust UK Pupils from Top Universities".
(37) "Do Your Degree in Two Years - Universities Told to Reduce Length of Courses as Cash Squeeze Bites", The Independent, 23 Dec. 2009, at
(38) "Overseas Students Help Plug Funding Gap", The Daily Telegraph.
(39) "More Chinese Students Considering Studies Abroad", People's Daily.
(40) Inter alia: R.L. Ting, "The Human Resource Challenge to Outward Foreign Direct Investment", and L. Zhau and J. Zhu, "China Attracting Global Talent".
(41) Inter alia: N.J. Adler, International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, and T.R. Harris, R.T. Moran and S.V. Moran, Managing Cultural Differences.
(42) R. Skeldon, "China: From Exceptional Case to Global Participant".
(43) L. Bai, "The Influence of Chinese Perceptions".
(44) Pew Global Attitudes Survey, "China's Optimism: Prosperity Brings Satisfaction - and Hope".
(45) P.A. Creed, W. Patton and D.A. Bartrum, "Multidimensional Properties of the Lot-R: Effects of Optimism and Pessimism", and W. Patton, D.A. Bartrum and P.A. Creed, "Gender Differences for Optimism, Self-Esteem, Expectations and Goals".
(46) Guanxi are dyadic networking type relationships based upon an assumption of reciprocity.
(47) D. Counsell, "Graduate Careers in the UK" and D. Counsell, "Careers in Ethiopia: An Exploration of Careerists' Perceptions and Strategies", Career Development International 4, no. 1 (1999): 46-52, and D. Counsell and J. Popova, "Career Perceptions and Strategies in the New Market-Oriented Bulgaria: An Exploratory Study", Career Development International 5, no. 7 (2000): 360-8.
(48) Those were the reasons given in this New Zealand study: L. Bai, "The Influence of Chinese Perceptions".
(49) The Russell Group represents many of the UK's prestigious universities. See
(50) "World University Rankings 2010", The Times Higher Education, 2010.
(51) HM Office for National Statistics, "Population Trends Report".
(52) L. Bai, "The Influence of Chinese Perceptions".
(53) J. Selmer and H. Lam, "Third-Culture Kids: Future Business Expatriates?".
(54) D. Counsell, "Graduate Careers in the UK", D. Counsell, "Careers in Ethiopia", and D. Counsell and J. Popova, "Career Perceptions and Strategies in the New MarketOriented Bulgaria".
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Doug Counsell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Lecturer in International HRM and MSc HRM Programme Director at Lancashire Business School, University of Central Lancashire, England. He studied organisational psychology at Lancaster University and has an MA and MPhil from Leeds University Business School. His research focuses on career-related perceptions and behaviours.
Table 1. Respondents' Reasons for Deciding to Study Abroad Rank Order Percentage 1 67 Seeking a quality higher education 2 60 Opportunity to develop foreign language skills 3 54 Gain foreign experience and learn about different cultures and traditions 4 17 Better career opportunities 5 6 It would be an interesting experience 6 5 Experience a country that has a good business reputation 7= 4 Did not do well enough in Chinese university entrance examination 7= 4 An opportunity to become more independent Other reasons: parental/family influence, cooperation/arrangements between Chinese and foreign HE institutions, to experience capitalism Table 2. Respondents' Reasons for Choosing the UK in Preference to Other Countries for University Studies Reasons for Choosing UK in Preference Rank Order Percentage to Other 1 65 Quality of UK university education 2 34 Develop English language skills 3 17 Quicker route to a degree 4 16 UK is a good country 5= 10 Links between Chinese educational institutions and UK universities 5= 10 Country with a good reputation for business 7 6 UK is a developed country 8 5 Nature of people in the UK 9= 4 Ease of entry into the UK 9= 4 Parental/family influence Other reasons: easier to gain admission to a UK university than a PRC university, chance to work in the UK, friends and/or relatives already in the UK, a safe country, a football country, UK weather, cost considerations Table 3. Respondents' Perceptions of How Chinese Employers Value a UK Undergraduate Degree Worth More Worth About than a the Same as Worth Less Chinese U-g a Chinese P-g than a Chinese Unsure Degree (%) Degree (%) U-g Degree (%) (%) Undergrads 53 40 5 2 (N = 83) Postgrads 56 27.5 12.5 4 (N = 105) All 55 33 9 3 (N = 188) Table 4. Respondents' Perception of How Chinese Employers Value a UK Postgraduate Degree Worth About Worth More the Same as a Worth Less than a Chinese Chinese P-g than a Chinese Unsure P-g Degree (%) Degree (%) U-g Degree (%) (%) Undergrads 52 26 11 11 (N = 83) Postgrads 64 22 5.5 8.5 (N = 105) All 58.5 24 8 9.5 (N = 188) Table 5. Respondents' Perceived Importance (Re. Career Success) of a Postgraduate Qualification Very Quite Not Very Of No Important Important Important Importance (%) (%) (%) (%) Undergrads 38.5 50.5 10 1 (N = 83) Postgrads 39 45 15 1 (N = 105) All 39 47.5 12.5 1 (N = 188) Table 6. Respondents' Perceived Positive Aspects of Living and Working Abroad Rank Order Percentage 1 Enhancing business skills and knowledge 43.5 2 Experiencing and understanding other cultures 34.5 3 Developing language skills 30.5 4 Higher remuneration 20.5 5 Being independent 15.5 6 Better lifestyle 11 7 Making foreign friends and contacts 10 8 Better physical environment 8 9 Better climate 1.5 Table 7. Respondents' Perceived Negative Aspects of Living and Working Abroad Rank Order Percentage 1 Adjusting to different ways and behaviours 59 2 Loneliness and missing key others 40 3 Language difficulties 15.5 4 "Local" food 11 5 Cost of living 10 6 Bias against foreigners 6.5 7 Boredom 3 8= Stress and pressure 1.5 8= Problems when repatriating to China 1.5 10 Greater risk in terms of personal safety 1 Table 8. Respondents Choices (Ranked) Regarding Expatriation Destinations Rank Score Country 1 351 UK 2 269 USA 3 122 Australia 4 83 Canada 5 43 Japan 6 33 Singapore 7 31 Germany 8 30 France 9 18 Switzerland 10 14 Hong Kong 11= 6 New Zealand 11= 6 Korea Table 9. Respondents' Reasons for Selecting an Expatriation Destination Rank Order Percentage 1 Strong economy with good job/career 51 opportunities 2 Being familiar with a country and 24.5 its way of life 3 Standard of living and its affordability 22.5 4 Attractiveness of environment in both 19 "green" and aesthetic sense 5 People friendly and accepting of foreigners 13.5 6 Learning opportunities available 13 7 Existing skills in language of country 9.5 8 Country's business reputation 9 9 Relatives, friends, other Chinese in country 7 10 Climate 5.5 11= Personal safety 5 11= Good working conditions 5 13 Work and residency permits easy to acquire 4.5 14 Country trades with China 4 Table 10. Respondents' Optimism or Pessimism Regarding Career Prospects Very Optimistic Optimistic Unsure (%) (%) (%) Females 7.5 50 30.5 (N = 70) Males 8 32.5 53 (N = 118) All 8 39 44.5 Respondents (N = 188) Pessimistic Very Pessimistic (%) (%) Females 12 0 (N = 70) Males 5.5 1 (N = 118) All 8 0.5 Respondents (N = 188)
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