Chinese students who prefer a particular country’s culture are significantly more likely to also name that country as their preferred overseas study destination, according to a new report from the British Council.

And students who say they are “interested” or “very interested” in overseas culture are more than three times as likely to say that they are at least considering studying abroad, compared to those with less cultural interest, says the report, Measuring Our Cultural Dividend.

The report covers mainland Chinese perceptions of overseas cultures and education destinations, based on a survey of 5,000 respondents, analysis of posts on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, and focus groups conducted with prospective students.

It attempts to identify which aspects of cultural interest are the most likely to drive interest in a country as an overseas study destination.

The report found “stark generational differences in foreign culture preferences” among survey respondents.

Older respondents tended to choose Western countries, while younger respondents showed greater affinity for neighbouring Asian countries like South Korea and Japan.

“This is part of a broader trend of integration among Asia’s developed economies,” it says.

Interest in particular aspects of overseas culture had a strong effect on overseas study intentions. For example, students interested in overseas literature, history and traditional culture, or media (music, film and television) were more likely than average to name the UK as their preferred study destination.

In contrast, students more interested in sports, brands/companies or technology had a higher chance of choosing the US.

‘Romance’ an important factor

The report notes that Chinese students’ online discussions of overseas education tend to focus on rankings, fees, scholarships, subject choices, visa-related issues, and comparisons between different countries.

Although survey findings consistently identified university ranking and education quality as the most important decision-making factor for students, the report adds that “what respondents tell us often conflicts with their behaviour”.

It goes on: “Our analysis of 23,000 Chinese social media posts mentioning positive aspects of UK study indeed found that university rankings and reputations were discussed most, but the second most popular topic was romance, ahead of education quality, course structure and scholarships.”

The report says that although romance is rarely mentioned in student survey responses, the data show that “it is among the most commonly discussed subjects when netizens talk about their international education experiences and expectations online”.

It cautions: “This behaviour should remind us that study decisions are part of a larger life narrative that extends far beyond the immediate objectives of education and career, even if students tend to externally rationalise their decisions in these terms.

“In communicating to potential students, education institutions should not be misled by the relatively one-dimensional character sketches that emerge from surveys and focus groups.”

Safety a key issue

The analysis found that safety is one of the key issues discussed when Chinese people talk online about life overseas.

“Surveys also show that it is one of the key issues taken into consideration when students consider where to study,” says the report.

The US was the most popular study destination in the survey. Among students who said they definitely wanted to study abroad or were considering it, 30 per cent chose the US as their first-choice destination while almost half rated it as either their first or second choice.

The UK also performed well, with significantly more students naming the country as their first-choice destination compared to third-placed Japan, while more students named the UK as their second- choice destination than any other country.

“Australia, Germany and Canada performed relatively better in terms of interest in studying in these countries as opposed to the number of Chinese people interested in their respective culture,” it says.

Australia and Canada often appear in combination, with students who picked Canada as their first choice being much more likely to pick Australia as their second choice and vice versa.

The report says an important factor influencing the awareness of UK education and positive sentiments towards the UK’s universities “is the more active role the UK takes in promoting its overseas education offer”.

In the 2016-17 financial year, it says, the British Council invested over £253 million globally in activities classed as “encouraging educational co-operation and promoting the advancement of education” – an amount “significantly higher than the expenditure of other major international competitors”.