Chinese Networks in Higher Education
As popular western social media platforms remain inaccessible in mainland China, Chinese social media platforms have become an important way for universities in the UK to reach out to their largest source of foreign students.
The UK has a global reputation for quality in higher education, with 18 universities appearing in the QS world ranking’s top 100 for 2019. UK institutions attract students from across the world, and according to a government study released in March this year, education related exports contributed 20 billion pounds (23.8 billion euros) to the UK economy in 2016.
In the higher education market, China is the UK’s biggest source of foreign students and is the only country showing a significant increase in student numbers. Many UK universities have invested resources to better communicate and engage with these students. And as popular western social media platforms are not accessible in mainland China due to censorship policies, Chinese social media platforms have become an important way for universities to reach out – and to keep students connected.
Many UK universities have created social media accounts on services such as Weibo, a microblogging site launched in 2009, and WeChat, a multi-purpose social media, messaging and mobile payment app launched by Tencent in 2011.
As popular western social media platforms are not accessible in mainland China due to censorship policies, Chinese social media platforms have become an important way for universities to reach out.
Examining the presence of 163 UK universities on Weibo back in August 2012, I found that 58 percent (94/163) had accounts on the platform. Some of these accounts were created by the China offices of the universities, others by their Chinese recruitment agents. Universities were often able to get their accounts verified on Weibo in order to improve trustworthiness and attract potential students, alumni and other followers.
In recent years, WeChat has become the dominant social networking application for Chinese netizens to chat with friends, share photos, follow official accounts to receive news and information, pay for shopping and so on. As of January 2018, just over half (82/163) of UK universities had public accounts on WeChat, while 73 percent (119/163) had Weibo accounts. By contrast, all of the UK's 163 universities had Facebook accounts in 2018 and 162 had Twitter accounts.
Aside from being consumers of higher education, contributing to the UK economy, Chinese students participate in the process of cultural exchange and to the diversity of British society. But do Chinese students make friends with British people, or do they remain in their own small social circles? Do Chinese students feel a sense of belonging at their institutions? When it comes to social media use, do Chinese higher education students studying in the UK embrace the freedom of using western social media, or do they prefer using Chinese social media?
In a study to answer some of these questions, I interviewed 26 students from mainland China studying at five UK universities to explore their experiences related to their social media use, social connections and feelings toward their universities.
Chinese students are all heavy social media users and many of them adopt western platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram after they go abroad. Some respondents in our study indicated that western social media platforms were useful in gaining new information and potentially contribute to cultural open-mindedness. Some also followed their lecturers on Twitter and LinkedIn. However, many indicated that although they had accounts on Twitter and Facebook, they rarely engaged via those platforms.
WeChat remains the preferred social networking platform for Chinese students who study abroad. All Chinese students use WeChat to communicate regularly with family and friends back home. “Aside from my sleep time, I spend about one-third of my waking time on WeChat,” one respondent in our study said. Others indicated that before going abroad they had searched on Weibo, WeChat and QQ for information about universities they were interested in. One student said that she attended her university’s pre-departure open day event in China and joined a WeChat group specially set up for the new cohort of Chinese students.
Based on my own experience managing my school’s Weibo account, I can say that we have many prospective students sending messages asking to join a Weibo or WeChat group in the hope of exchanging information and making new friends. It is important for students to make new friends when they study abroad. Previous studies have found that international students often face language barriers and cultural differences and thus prefer to stay in familiar cultural and language environments.
This certainly seems to be the case for Chinese students in the UK, based on my study findings. Most Chinese student respondents reported strong ties of friendship with the Chinese classmates or Chinese students they met at pre-sessional language courses or student societies. Some students indicated that they found it difficult to make connections with those from other cultural backgrounds. For example, they might develop weak-tie connections with non-Chinese classmates, but find it difficult to have meaningful conversations.
One student identified cultural differences as a hindrance to friendship: “Because of our different cultures,” they said, “I was close to someone from a different cultural background for a while, but it was easy to have misunderstandings and it was easy to fall out.” Some Chinese students reported that their British peers liked to socialize by drinking and clubbing while they were not interested in such activities.
In the study, undergraduates appeared to have more diverse friendship groups than postgraduates, possibly because they arrived in the UK at a younger age and had more time to adjust to British culture and become comfortable and confident in making friends with locals. “After I went to a barbeque and then clubbing with some British [students], we became good friends,” one undergraduate student in our study said.
The study abroad experience generally encourages Chinese students to develop weak-tie friendships to some extent, although some do obtain strong-tie friendships with those from other cultures. A small number of participants reported having obtained weak-tie friendships with non-Chinese through volunteer activities being published on university social media accounts or via Instagram or WeChat groups.
A Sense of Belonging
Commitment from students to their institutions can be measured by their sense of belonging to the university. Many Chinese students in this study indicated that they had only a weak or moderate sense of belonging to their host institutions, although they suspected that this feeling might grow stronger once they completed their studies and returned home.
Some Chinese students reported that their British peers liked to socialise by drinking and clubbing while they were not interested in such activities.
Another factor that can influence the sense of belonging felt by Chinese students is the physical space of the university – whether a university has a designated campus, or the buildings are spread out. A number of the students in our survey said they did not feel a sense of belonging at their university because there was no clearly designated campus. Others indicated that participating in student societies or sports clubs made them have a stronger sense of belonging to the university.
Some UK universities have created accounts specifically for Chinese alumni on Weibo and WeChat. The University of Manchester, for example, has alumni societies in Beijing and Shanghai that often organise dinner parties and post pictures on WeChat. I have also received messages from former students saying they feel homesick for the university when they read WeChat articles about the city, about the lecturers who taught them, about events on campus and so on.
A previous study found that students who follow a university’s social media accounts reported a higher sense of belonging with their university. My own efforts managing Chinese social media accounts for my university suggests that these indeed help improve student experience and build bridges between educators and students.
This article previously appeared at Asia Dialogue, and is re-published here with slight re-editing.