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The Disrupted Fall Semester of 2020
Survey Report to show what is in the incoming Chinese students’ mind and what should Canadian universities be aware of


The transition to university is an exciting process, but it can be a time of stress and confusion as well. This is all the more true for international students, who are not just leaving home for the first time, but transitioning to a new country, a new culture, and often a radically different education system than the one in which they have been raised. That, of course, is in a normal year. 2020 has, and will continue to be, anything but normal, especially in the field of higher education.

What are the thoughts and concerns of these students as they prepare to start university at such a precarious time? How prepared are Canadian Universities to serve this critical population, and how well are they doing so far? What factors will shape the future of Chinese student enrollment in Canadian universities? How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the plans of both Chinese students and Canadian universities?

As one of the largest international student education companies operating in the Canadian marketplace, Easy Edu has always served as a critical bridge between Chinese students and the Canadian university system. In this capacity, Easy Edu’s parent company, Easy Group, has undertaken a comprehensive survey of nearly 400 Chinese students who had originally planned to enroll as first year students at Canadian universities this fall.

Table of contents

This report lays out the survey’s findings on critical topics of interest in 5 key sections:

• Survey Population
• Online Learning and Enrollment
• Mental Health and Wellbeing
• Perceptions of Canada
• Communication

1. Survey Population

Who are they?
This report focusses on a survey that was administered to 389 Chinese students during the summer of 2020. These students either are enrolled – or had previously intended to enroll – in a Canadian university for the upcoming fall 2020 semester. Respondents to the survey represent 12 different Canadian Universities, though this representation is not evenly distributed.

What do they study?
Chinese students tend to skew towards specialized fields of study that are perceived to be practical and career oriented. Over 2/3 of respondents are enrolled in either STEM or Business-related majors. However, we have seen growing numbers in the social sciences and especially the arts in recent years as Chinese students broaden their interests. Universities should look for this trend to continue and maintain awareness in the context of their recruitment efforts.

2. Online Learning and Enrollment

Who are they?
The most significant change in the higher-education landscape since the start of the COVID-19 crisis has been the shift to online learning. Understanding the thoughts of Chinese students on this transition is one of the key goals of this survey. Online learning can pose significant difficulties and anxieties, especially among those who speak English as a second language. The opportunities for comprehensive immersion in a foreign language and culture are a significant part of the appeal of studying in a foreign country, and these advantages may be diminished, or even altogether lost, on a virtual campus. For international student enrollment numbers, perception of these losses may be just as important. Universities should consider these factors, and how they will affect the holistic educations and comprehensive student experiences of their international students. Universities should keep in mind that they are not just reimagining the classroom, but the college campus and student life in general for the short- and long-term, digital-first future.

Almost 70% percent of Chinese students said they greatly (27.2%) or somewhat (42.7%) dislike online learning and hope to do as little of it as possible. Less than 10% of students felt at all positively about online learning with less than 5% enthusiastic.

Online learning preferences by major

One might expect students in STEM fields to have the greatest predilection for online learning, given the outsized roll such fields are perceived to play in preparing students for technology-focused careers. In fact, STEM majors held the most negative views of online learning by a small margin, with Business and Finance students only slightly more amenable. (This excludes ESL and General Education majors, whose numbers were too small to reach statistically signifigant conclusions, though they are still represented in figure 5.) Those studying the Humanities proved to be the most open to online learning – with social scientists and artists in tow – a statistic that some might find surprising. However, this likely reflects the roll that language ability plays in shaping perceptions of, and anxieties related to, the idea of online learning; fields within the Social Sciences and Humanities tend to be more reading and writing intensive, attracting those foreign students with more preexisting confidence in their language skills. Universities should be especially cognizant of the way these trends may invert expectations for domestic students, especially when shaping field-specific communications.

Where will they physically be studying?
Despite their misgivings about online learning, Chinese students have, for the most part chosen to remain enrolled for the coming fall semester.

Just under a third of those polled will be moving to Canada to enroll as more traditional students (though this may still include some portion of online learning.) Meanwhile, 57.5% of students are enrolling at Canadian Universities despite the fact that they will remain in China for at least the first semester of their studies. Only 10% have chosen to opt out for the year, and the overwhelming majority of these students are seeking a deferment, in hopes of a return to normal that will allow them to pursue their Canadian educational dreams as originally planned. Only 3% of students have chosen to walk away altogether, showing the enduring appeal of a Canadian University education, and the commitment of Chinese students to attaining one. These current enrollment trends are subject to change however, and Universities should be more vigilant than ever about monitoring and responding to shifting student attitudes, anxieties and desires.

Though respondents offered a number of reasons that might affect their desire and commitment to enroll now or in the future, among students who reported that their enrollment status or situation had shifted for the coming year, a statistically insignificant portion cited a change in financial status to their family as the reason. In light of the economic devastation the COVID-19 crisis has brought to many families and institutions in the West, the economic resilience of Chinese students as an enrollment base is worth noting, potentially raising the relative value for Canadian Universities of monitoring their relationship with, and the satisfaction of, this growing constituency.

While resource constraints were not a deciding factor for Chinese student enrollments, that is not to say that economic considerations are irrelevant, especially as they consider the value of a Canadian education in the context of the transition to online learning.

Less than 10% of incoming Chinese students felt that it was reasonable for Canadian Universities to expect them to pay the same amount of tuition for classes administered online, irrespective of the portion of their education accounted for by online learning. Yet, most did not feel the need for a drastic reduction in tuition. This suggests Chinese students’ flexibility and commitment to Canadian education in the face of changing circumstances. They value their continued ability to pursue a Canadian degree, but they want to feel that they, in turn, are valued as students and customers, and not taken for granted or viewed as an exploitable or inexhaustible resource, especially in trying times. This suggests both a practical and symbolic component to the valuation of their educations and the necessity for Canadian institutions to better communicate the logic of this valuation to Chinese students, especially under shifting circumstances.

Valuing different arrangements
Students were also asked to evaluate different potential arrangements balancing tuition payments and online learning as they consider present and future enrollment.

While a sizeable portion of students demonstrated an unwavering commitment, they remained a minority. A majority of students said a shift to half- or fulltime virtual learning without any sort of commensurate reduction in tuition would negatively affect present or future decisions to enroll. This further underscores findings that Chinese students represent a valuable and committed resource for Canadian Universities, but one that cannot be taken for granted. While Chinese students continue to value a Canadian degree, this value is not limitless; they want that degree to reflect both personal and financial value as well. Again, Canadian Universities need to work to better communicate to foreign students the logic underwriting cost determinations of tuition payments, so students can more fully appreciate the value of their personal and familial investment in Canadian higher education.

3. Mental Health and Wellbeing

Mental health and wellbeing has been a growing concern for students and institutions alike in recent years, and this concern should be all the more urgent under anxious or uncertain circumstances. Students were asked to evaluate the extent to which mental health and wellbeing issues could affect their decisions to enroll.

A majority of students responded that growing concerns over their mental health and wellbeing had a negative effect on enrollment decisions. While Canadian universities have greatly expanded their focus on student wellbeing and, along with the Canadian medical system, access to mental health services, there is clearly more that could be done to further extend both awareness and access, to foreign students especially.

Chinese students come from a culture where access to such services remains limited and even stigmatized. While the situation is changing, self-awareness outpaces access for most Chinese students, and Canadian universities should be aware of this different cultural context. This finding speaks to a need for special cultural sensitivity and awareness on the part of universities in allocating mental health resources and shaping attendant communications. This may include having mental health professionals trained in specific cultural competencies, as well as paying special attention to extending and explaining online access to such resources, in the case of limited in-person access.

Specific Worries
Beyond general worry over mental health and wellbeing, this survey further investigated a range of specific issues to better understand which factors Chinese students perceive as having the greatest potential impact on their mental health and wellbeing, as well as their decisions to enroll in Canadian Universities.

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 was the biggest source of worry for Chinese students, and this worry showed a near perfect correlation to the worry that campus life will not be enjoyable. While this correlation makes sense, it also suggests a conundrum that may be a key source of anxiety for foreign students. The desire to experience campus life is often a critical factor in student decisions to study abroad in Canada, one that has been fundamentally altered by the COVID-19 crisis. Those whose universities have shifted completely to online learning are forced to forgo this important component of the student experience, while those who are able to enroll in person are worried that campus life will have been irrevocably altered, at least in the short term.

Notably, there is less of a correlation between worry over COVID-19 and general safety, indicating that Chinese students are potentially more worried about the ways that COVID-19 will alter their college experiences than they are over its direct risk to their physical health. This suggests that Canadian Universities need to focus on communicating the ways in which they have attempted to make up for these shortcomings. Further, they need to pay special attention to linking and integrating disparate communities online, showcasing the parts of campus life that have not been altered, and communicating the ways that students can still participate, both in person and online.

International students often struggle to integrate into campus life under normal circumstances, and this risk is likely higher at present. Whereas domestic students may naturally seek out substitutes for social associations and extracurricular activities under altered circumstances, Chinese students are at a special cultural disadvantage; they often would not even become aware that such options exist until familiarizing themselves with the norms of Canadian campus life. This is an issue that universities should work to address, both as a practical matter and a communication concern, paying special attention to the role that cultural differences may play in the implicit allocation of campus social resources.
Feeling unwelcome
Notably, concern over general safety showed a higher correlation to worry about a perceived rise in anti-China sentiment, a concern that Canadian Universities may want to specifically address with their Chinese students. Interestingly, nearly 40% of students said this actually had a ‘somewhat’ or ‘very positive impact’ on their decisions to enroll in Canadian Universities. This suggests that, while a perceived rise in bias against their country remains a significant concern, in the eyes of Chinese students considering studying abroad, Canada has faired more positively than other countries. This issue is explored in greater depth in the following section.

4. Perceptions of Canada during COVID-19 Crisis

To further explore the extent to which Chinese students’ perceptions of Canada affect their decisions to enroll in Canadian Universities – especially in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis – this survey asked several questions. Students were first asked to assess their perceptions of Canada and the country’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis in general, and then they were asked to assess their perceptions of Canada relative to other countries. Finally, students were asked the same question about Canada’s southern neighbor, the United States.

The COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly affected Chinese student perceptions of Canada, with 49% saying that it has led them to view the country in a more negative light. However, this image softens when examined relative to student perceptions of other foreign countries. In this context, only 38% viewed Canada in a more negative light, while almost a quarter of students said that their views of Canada had grown more positive in relation to other countries. The United States, meanwhile, faired far worse. 76% of students said they had come to view the United States more negatively, relative to other countries. Critically, a staggering 48% of students had come to view the United States ‘much more negatively,’ as compared to only 4% for Canada. This is a massive differential which could have important implications for Canadian higher education as a destination for Chinese students moving forward.

However, while this comparison appears to illustrate a relative advantage for the Canadian market, it should be considered in the context of the survey population, which is entirely made up of students who had previously chosen to study in Canada. As such, this may reflect effects of either selection or confirmation bias. Yet, it is also a testament to the relative resiliency of Canada’s image in the eyes of foreign students. As this was a measure of shifting perceptions, this resiliency and comparative advantage should not be taken for granted. Universities and government officials should work to build off this result. Further, with 49% of students now holding a more negative view of Canada in general, significant work remains to be done to improve and repair Canada’s image in the eyes of Chinese students.

5. Communication

This survey’s findings have repeatedly demonstrated the need for Canadian universities to more adequately communicate with their Chinese students in order to address student concerns and maintain relationships with this key population at this critical juncture. To close, this survey investigated the extent to which Canadian universities have, or have not, succeeded at communicating with their Chinese students thus far.

A majority of survey respondents said that their Canadian Universities had failed to meet their expectations in terms of communication at this uncertain time. Worryingly, more than 20% of students said their universities had made no attempt to contact them whatsoever. Clearly there is a need for improvement, and this report has already indicated numerous potential avenues for increased and improved communications as such.

This breakdown in communication should be especially troubling for Canadian universities given the population of students represented: incoming first-year students. This is a population that is already in the midst of a confusing and uncertain transition, one made all the more complicated by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, as the group with the longest student careers ahead of them, these first years represent the greatest potential loss of value for Canadian Universities if they fail to preserve their existing relationships and persuade them to reenroll in the future.

Feeling unwelcome

While the sample is limited for certain universities, Kings and McGill are the only institutions to achieve positive mean scores in terms of the extent to which communications have met or exceeded student expectations. (Scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is negative and 5 is positive; see figure 13.) However, King’s populations of respondents is too small to be statistically significant, leaving McGill as the clear leader in communications efficacy, at least for this population of incoming first-year Chinese students

McMaster and Western are roughly tied for 2nd place, while the University of British Columbia and University of Toronto-Scarborough fared worse in this limited sample. However, it should be noted that all universities represented in this report show significant room for improvement in their communications, according to most incoming Chinese students. If there is one key takeaway from this, and in fact every statistic in this survey, it is the need for universities to improve their efforts to communicate with Chinese students, if they hope to preserve their positive relationship with this key constituency for the future.