Outward mobility to China: trends, challenges and opportunities

by Steven Hutt
East Asia


The British Council last week (23 May) launched a digital toolkit to support the growth of the Generation UK campaign, which aims to boost the number of young people in the UK engaging with China. The toolkit was announced at a reception held jointly with the All Party Parliamentary China Group in the House of Commons and was developed specifically to help MPs promote the campaign in their constituencies. It includes various resources to raise awareness of the benefits of engaging with China and to encourage local universities, businesses and youth organisations to get involved in the campaign. The toolkit can be downloaded from the Generation UK website.

The launch of the toolkit coincides with the campaign’s fifth anniversary. It is estimated that more than 45,000 young people from the UK have undertaken study, internship or teaching programmes in China since the launch of the campaign, which aims to see this number rise to 80,000 by 2020.

As 2020 approaches, it is worth taking a closer look at some of the key trends, challenges and opportunities around boosting outward mobility from the UK to China.


Scale of Mobility

The overall headline is that the number of young people gaining experience in China is growing, but the level of outward mobility from the UK to China remains behind that of other European countries, such as Germany and France.

It is estimated that around 10,000 young people from the UK gained experience in China in 2017, a 70 per cent increase on numbers since the launch of the campaign in 2013. Within these wider numbers, data released by China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) shows that the number of UK students enrolled at Chinese institutions has experienced steady growth over recent years.


Data from Ministry of Education, China, 2017

When we compare the UK’s numbers with those of other Western nations, such as Germany, France and the US, two things jump out: Firstly, while Germany, France and the US have seen growth level off in the numbers of young people studying at Chinese universities, the UK remains on an upward trajectory. Secondly, however, it is also noticeable that the UK started from a lower base and, even with continued growth, the number of British students at Chinese universities is well behind the numbers from France and Germany.

China is not the only destination where mobility of UK students lags behind that of other European nations. More widely, an average of 25 per cent of German students and 19 per cent of Australian students study abroad during their time at university, compared to just 6.6 per cent for UK students.

Germany and Australia’s progress in boosting outward mobility over a short period has coincided with significant investment to make international opportunities more accessible to home students. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) provides funding for 118,000 German students to study abroad each year, while the Australian Government currently invests more than $200 million each year in international scholarships to support both inward and outward mobility.

While a significant uplift in scholarships may be unlikely in the current economic and political climate, the UK may wish to look closely at Australia’s adaptation of their student loan system to also cover international placements. According to Universities Australia, the increase in the number of Australian students studying abroad has been supplemented by OS-HELP, the Australian Government's loan for domestic students looking to study abroad. OS-HELP loans are repaid by students on the same conditions as other HELP loans (link), which support domestic study in higher education.

Type of Mobility

A significant proportion of international students studying in the UK are enrolled on long-term degree programmes. However, UK students studying in China fit a different profile.


Data from Ministry of Education, China, 2017

Looking at the MOE’s data, it is clear that longer term degree mobility represents only a small portion of the wider number of UK students enrolled at Chinese universities. The vast majority of students are enrolled in short-term study programmes, including summer schools and language courses. Looking beyond students enrolled at Chinese universities, the balance is skewed still further, with the vast majority of other programmes that bring young people to China, such as internships, teaching placements and field trips, also having durations of less than three months.

While longer term degree mobility has traditionally been viewed as offering students more opportunity to develop deeper skills, shorter term programmes offer some important benefits.

Firstly, our research shows that, for many UK participants of mobility programmes in China, shorter term programmes often serve as an important trigger or stepping-stone in inspiring students to return to China on longer tern placements later on. Even experiences in China of only seven days can have a big impact in demonstrating to students that perceived language or cultural barriers are not actually as challenging as they anticipated, while showcasing the significant support and opportunities that are available for international students in China.

In addition, the prevalence of shorter term programmes is positive in terms of efforts to widen participation – one of the key aims of the Generation UK campaign. Shorter term programmes are shown to be more attractive to students from underrepresented groups, such as low-income households, first generation scholars and BAME backgrounds.

Key Drivers

It is also worth looking at some of the key drivers behind the trends outlined above.

Pull Factors

On the one hand, China has an increasing amount of “pull” as a destination for international students.

Over recent years, Chinese universities have improved their position in global rankings and become more adept at honing their own programmes and recruitment strategies for attracting international students. Related to this, there has been a significant rise in the number of English-language courses available at Chinese institutions, making it possible for international students to learn about a much wider range of disciplines than was previously the case, unless students were fluent in Mandarin.

China has invested significantly to support universities in achieving the national target set by the ‘Study in China’ plan, which aims for China to host 500,000 international students by 2020. From raising scholarship stipends to building new international student dormitories, Chinese universities have had the financial backing to offer improved incentives for international students to enrol.

Finally, growing recognition of China’s influential role on the international stage has seen it emerge as a popular destination and host country for ‘elite’ academic programmes that aim to educate future global leaders. Over recent years, new programmes, such as the Schwarzman Scholarships and the Yenching Academy, have been launched, with a key focus on boosting high-achieving international students’ understanding of China and growing their personal networks in the world’s second largest economy.

In combination, these factors have provided a favourable environment for international students in China.

Push Factors

So what about the “push” factors behind the growing UK outward mobility to China?

Over recent years we have seen many UK universities change their approach to partnerships with China by focusing on quality rather than quantity. As UK institutions look to develop deeper and more comprehensive partnerships, we are seeing an increasing number of exchanges and field trips bringing home students to their chosen Chinese partners. This is a development highly welcomed by Chinese universities, who appreciate the greater sense of balance and mutuality that a two-way flow of student mobility brings to the partnership.

We have also witnessed growing interest from UK universities in setting up their own bespoke programmes in China, particularly in the field of work experience. For example, the British Council has partnered with institutions such as the University of Sussex to launch initiatives like the ‘Sussex China Internship Scheme’, which has seen more than 200 Sussex home students gain work experience in China since 2015. At the same time, UK institutions have developed their own programmes in China as part of a wider push on outward mobility, including De Montford University’s #DMUglobal.

It is worth noting that Access and Participation agreements have played an important role in helping to source the financial support that is needed to get such programmes off the ground and make them accessible to students from underrepresented groups. As the sector increasingly recognises the positive impact that outward mobility has upon students from widening participation backgrounds in particular, universities have moved to include bursaries for international experience in their access agreements. As a host country, China is viewed as ticking many of the right boxes for short-term programmes. The clear contrast with the UK in terms of culture and language, together with its growing footprint in the world economy marks China out as a destination that can offer eye-opening and transformational experiences for students, as well as a significant talking point on their CV for conversations with future employers.


However, beyond these important drivers, it is worth noting that there are still significant challenges in boosting UK mobility to China, such as:

  • Funding: Although access and participation agreements have helped to an extent, funding remains a barrier for outward mobility to China. While tuition fees, living costs and accommodation are relatively modest compared to other destinations, flights and visas can be significantly more expensive.


  • Pastoral Care: The quality and scope of support provided for international students can vary considerably across different universities in China. Local understanding and expectations of an institutions duty of care to students can differ from that in the UK.


  • Learning Objectives: While China has an array of short-term programme opportunities, from summer schools to internships, not all will have clear learning objectives for participants, unless specifically requested. For summer schools, cultural classes such as calligraphy, tai qi, or paper-cutting are popular wrap-around activities, but they offer little in the way of skills development and learning when featured as part of a core programme. Local understandings of internships can also differ. Placements that do not stipulate clear roles and responsibilities for students are likely to be of little benefit to the individual’s work experience and skillset.


  • Perception: China still lags behind more traditional destinations in terms of where UK students are most interested in gaining international experience. Media coverage of China can paint a negative image of the country, especially while it’s still relatively uncommon for students to have friends and peers who have been to China themselves.


Desired study abroad destinations among UK students (2017)


Looking forward, what opportunities and developments should we pay attention to in regard to boosting outward mobility to China over the near future?

These are the highlights:

  • Both China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and the ‘World-Class Universities and Disciplines Project’ (link) indicate that political and financial support for boosting the number of international students studying in China is likely to remain high. With the UK considered as part of the Belt and Road, the cultural and educational sides of the initiative may unlock further scholarship opportunities in China for UK students.


  • While student perceptions of China remain a barrier, recent increases in the number of young people from the UK who have gained experience in China and returned to the UK make for a potentially powerful network of advocates in inspiring their peers to do the same. The Generation UK: China Network provides a platform to connect these individuals together.
  • China’s government and education sectors increasingly recognise the importance of providing international students with work experience during their programmes in China. While these programmes will take time to develop, new visa streams and growing links between Chinese universities and employers or science parks suggest that the number of opportunities for international students to undertake quality internships in China will increase in the coming years. (link)


  • The Department for Education is expanding support for the Generation UK campaign and has committed itself to giving twice as many young people from disadvantaged and less represented backgrounds the opportunity to take up internships in China from 2018. Applications will open in autumn 2018.

What next?

The UK has made strong progress in growing the numbers of young people gaining experience in China over recent years. Nevertheless, levels of mobility from the UK to China remain behind other Western nations. To ensure that the UK stays competitive, it is crucial that government, business, and universities do more to help accelerate this growth.

For UK universities in particular, there is cause for optimism. Although barriers still exist, the drivers of recent growth remain in place and the emergence of new opportunities, incentives and resources to support outward mobility to China hold significant promise.

To find out more about how your institution can get involved in the Generation UK campaign, please visit our website, or contact us directly at gen.uk@britishcouncil.org.cn

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