Chinese parents and UK language centres have different priorities about summer schools, according to a new report.
Chinese agents interviewed for the British Council report said the main reason students and parents chose international summer school programmes was to experience overseas culture. Increasing independence and preparing to study overseas were also popular reasons.
While summer school operators agreed the main driver for the Chinese summer market was the chance to experience overseas culture, they believed there was also a strong motivation to improve language ability.
Different perceptions between agents and educators?
"This difference in perceptions might suggest that some UK summer school operators see language as more important than it is in reality. An agent commented that students 'would love to improve their language' but that this is not the main purpose of the course due to the large cost of travelling to and staying in the UK... Nevertheless, all interviewees agreed that language learning was an essential component of overseas summer school programmes," says the report, produced by the British Council with support from English UK.
The report draws on a variety of research sources including focus groups with Chinese agents, parents and students. It says the overall market is seeing strong growth, particularly among younger secondary students, with the UK in second place behind the US.
Chinese parents are less likely to shop around for agents, and agents tend to work with local schools or education authorities. Language-plus programmes remain most popular.
Agents themselves meet new providers through industry bodies or events, and also use friends or industry contacts for introductions. Only a small minority established partnerships after a cold call from a summer school provider.
Safety is the top factor for parents
The report's insights include that safety is the top factor for parents when choosing summer school courses. "Safety was seen as particularly important by parents in focus groups. All parents agreed that safety was very important, with many describing it as the most important part of their decision or saying that it was "the most basic condition" for sending their children abroad.
"Students themselves are much less likely to describe safety as one of their most important factors, although when asked they did agree that it was important," says the report, adding that perceived safety is "a significant advantage" for UK boarding school summer school programmes.
Agents said factors after safety included unique course content, a multicultural student body, and the price of courses.
Chinese students 'want to see everything'
Location was also vital for the Chinese market, and often one of the most important decision-making factors for the students themselves where they have the final choice of centre.
'The presence of major cultural and tourist attractions near the programme location was seen as an important factor by all parties. Tourism is seen as a particularly important driver for Chinese students in comparison to other nationalities, and in the words of one summer school operator, Chinese students 'want to see everything'," says the report.
This gives summer schools in London a particular advantage, although other parts of the UK, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, are also popular for some parents," says the report, noting that one centre in Scotland has acquired London partners, so that students can transfer to the capital.
Some UK summer school operators say this demand for tourist visits is "excessive and counterproductive" but focus groups with Chinese parents said it was a key part of the cultural aspect of the programme, and that the excursions should be high quality.
Advantages and disadvantages for the UK
The UK's advantages over competitors include the country's history and cultural background, safety, and its reputation for high-quality education and modern teaching methods.
"Given the role of summer school programmes as a preparation/taster for future overseas study, demand for the UK's universities has a strong effect on boosting the popularity of the country's summer schools," says the report.
Negative factors were the UK's tough visa requirements – making the UK less attractive as a potential university study destination – as well as homestays which are perceived as less welcoming than in other countries and a lack of variety in course options.
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