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China’s growth in vocational college provision, coupled with the existing demand for QS top 100 PGTs, presents an exciting opportunity for UK universities to gain a foothold in this growing market. IDP’s latest market intelligence reveals an interesting correlation between China’s growth in vocational education and a simultaneous rise in demand for UK top-up degrees. When searching course titles which contain the words Top Up or Final Year, IDP estimates that demand for these types of courses has more than doubled in the last year.  The following article explores the socio-economic drivers behind this trend; moreover, how UK institutions can best position themselves, in terms of their market strategy, so as not to miss out on this growing market opportunity. 

For Chinese students, getting into a top ranked university overseas, at either undergraduate or postgraduate level, can dramatically increase a student’s employment prospects and mobility upon return to China, particularly when navigating the ‘Hukou’ system: a type of household registration system linked to domestic mobility and permission to live and work in one of the major economic hubs such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. Attending a top QS 100–200 university will enable students to access better employment opportunities, relocate cities should they choose to, as well other benefits. By following the top-up route, vocational students can convert accumulated credits into a full degree, giving them the opportunity to go on to study at a QS 100 or 200 university and the same societal benefits as UG educated students. 

However, rankings are not the only driver. Vocationally educated students want the opportunity to take their education further, honing skills and subject knowledge at degree level. Vocational courses provide students with the basics—the practical skills—but top-up degrees give them the opportunity to consolidate their learning, while acquiring an internationally recognised qualification which gives them the freedom to continue their academic journey at postgraduate level.  

The rise in vocational provision

With a record number of students taking this year’s notoriously difficult Gaokao exam, just under 13 million, combined with limited university places and high youth unemployment, the Chinese Government has been left in a conundrum: what to do with so many school leavers? In June 2023, the Chinese Government passed a new law elevating the status of Chinese vocational education in a bid to strengthen the sector and attract more students to pursue careers which could bolster the economy and respond to the country’s demand for a more skilled/technical workforce; while capacity in vocational college has increased, undergraduate capacity has not kept up with demand. 

In addition, Chinese students are subject to streaming at two stages in their academic career: first in high school and then post high school. At each stage, around fifty percent of students will be streamed onto a vocational route. However, it is important to note that this does not necessarily reflect ability, rather a tool to manage supply in China’s highly competitive education system and ultimate lack of capacity. Either way, the propensity for students wanting to convert vocational credits into an undergraduate degree, presents huge opportunities for UK institutions.  

The table below, demonstrates the steady increase in college places over the past four years, with applications set to rise as the number of Gaokao entrants increases. With few students receiving the necessary 600 marks in the Gaokao needed to enter one of China’s elite universities, combined with fierce competition and limited UG capacity, students are opting for an alternative route—top-up degrees—which act as a steppingstone towards a PGT from high-ranking universities.  

College applications vs. undergraduate applications in China 

What are students looking for?

Whilst it is true to say university rankings still carry much weight in China, for a plethora of reasons, students who follow the vocational route are, at least in the initial stage, prioritising other factors when choosing their top-up degree destination. That is not to say reputation is not important; students want to be reassured that their undergraduate top-up degrees are from universities with a good track record of achievement. They will be looking at the percentage of students who qualify with either First or Upper Second Class Honours. This is because students hope the top-up course will enable them to achieve a 2:1 or a First degree, so they can go on to pursue a postgraduate qualification at one of the top QS 100 or 200 universities. In addition, good student support is crucial. They want to study in a supportive environment which recognises that that their previous three-year education/experience has not been at UG level; therefore, they may require extra support to succeed. A further determiner is cost. Students opting for this route are often motivated by a more economical way to access study abroad. A typical budget will be anything from £15,000–£18,000. Finally, students want top-up degrees that do NOT mention it is a ‘top up’ on the certificate. By understanding the needs of this cohort, institutions can capitalise on this expanding market.  

What can universities do to attract this cohort?

UK institutions need to work more closely with IDP counsellors in China to ensure they are equipped with the information necessary to guide students to the right course and right university. This means providing counsellors with adequate information on entry requirements, minimum IELTS score requirements, costs and the vocational qualification or credits needed for a top-up degree in the same or related field. Information and communication with counsellors on the ground is key: 

More training and application support will be needed for counsellors to provide the detailed and professional service students require. Moreover, good onshore student support, whether at the academic level or English language level, are all decisive factors which give potential students confidence in your institution.”  Venice Yun, Destination and SES Director, IDP China 

When will Chinese students begin their research journey?  

Chinese students research and prepare for overseas study much earlier. As such, top-up students would approach counsellors at least 12 months prior to course commencement— usually before the commencement of their final year at the three-year college—from July to September. Top-up degrees require applicants to follow the typical undergraduate admission season, from September to December.  

End of online certification 

In January 2023, the Ministry of Education in China officially ended its recognition of online certification of students enrolled in foreign institutions. This means there will be huge demand from students as they travel to their university’s host country to attend in person classes to complete their qualification. The increased pressure on an already stretched housing supply in the UK, will mean that new Chinese applicants wishing to study in the UK will be drawn to those institutions with capacity as well as quality, making this a perfect time for lesser-known institutions to enter the market promoting their top-up degrees as having the infrastructure, capacity and support to meet students’ needs.  

As UG places in China continue to be squeezed, the demand for top-up degrees will only increase. This represents a huge market opportunity for lesser-known institutions to have a slice of the Chinese pie. Developing bespoke top-up courses, which align with Chinese vocational qualifications, will allow students to seamlessly transition from college in China on to a top-up degree programme in the UK. Institutions can take advantage of this growing market and enhance their brand awareness within the China if they can tap into the needs of vocational students, both academically and pastorally. By explicitly demonstrating capacity, quality and cost in marketing campaigns, UK higher education, particularly lower ranked institutions, can capitalise on current market demand by adding a more nuanced approach to their international portfolio.  

To find out more about how IDP can support your international recruitment strategy, reach out to us: www.idp-connect.com/contact and for further reading on international student recruitment in China, check out our recent article: A Fine Balance: why continuity and consistency are more important than ever in Chinese international student recruitment 

Gemma Smith author image
Gemma Smith31 July 2023