China and India: Understanding Market Characteristics for Online Recruitment

By Dr Rahul Choudaha, Associate Director of Development & Innovation, World Education Services

In his Harvard Business Review article “China + India: The Power of Two”, Tarun Khanna (2007) highlighted the ascendancy of China and India. He states that in the next decade China and India will be the world’s largest and third largest economies respectively in terms of their purchasing power. This optimism is seen not only in terms of financial prowess but also in terms of the transforming nature of the economy. While China is gaining competitiveness as a destination for manufacturing, India is strengthening itself as a hub for technology services. As these economies grow and transform, there is an accompanying increase in prosperity among the citizens, which in turn leads to higher educational aspirations and an increasing ability to pay for an international education. Overall, this is resulting in an increase in demand for international higher education by Chinese and Indian students. Globally, it is expected that China and India will account for over half the global demand in international higher education by 2025 (Böhm, Davis, Meares & Pearce, 2002). Even in these times of global recession, student mobility from China and India is expected to grow (McMurtrie, 2009).

While on the demand side there are indicators of greater mobility of Chinese and Indian students, on the supply side there is a corresponding increase in the choice of destinations. Richard Florida (2004) argues, “talented people are a global factor of production, able to choose among economically vibrant and attractive regions the world over.” Some of the developed nations facing demographic challenges are using international students as a source of knowledge workers and future immigrants. Countries like Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom are aggressively recruiting and retaining international students by aligning education and immigration policies.

In the U.S. context, Debra W. Stewart, President of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) notes, “it’s a good thing that we’re continuing to see growth both in applications and admissions, but given the fact that the world pool is expanding dramatically, it would be a mistake to ignore this trend line of a slowdown in growth” (Redden, 2008). As the competition for international talent increases, American universities have to stay competitive in their biggest markets – China and India. With more than 175,000 students at U.S. institutions of education in academic year 2007/08, Chinese and Indian enrollments accounted for over 28 percent of the total international student body, up from almost 25 percent the year prior (Institute of International Education, 2008). With such a heavy reliance on students from these two countries any significant decrease will significantly impact the bottom line of many universities.

Despite the strategic centrality of China and India for international enrollments not all institutions have benefited from this large volume. For example, Chinese and Indian students constitute nearly one-third of enrollments at doctoral research institutions and one-fifth at master’s institutions (IIE, 2007). Recent CGS data on 2008 fall admissions also suggest that international admissions offers increased at a much higher rate at larger and reputed institutions (8 percent growth of offers at the 10 institutions with the largest international graduate student enrollments) as compared to smaller institutions (1 percent growth at institutions outside the top 50) ( Redd & Mahler, 2008). There are also pronounced differences in international enrollment by location and disciplines. For instance, nearly 40 percent of all international students are enrolled at schools in just five states and one-third of overseas students are enrolled in business- and engineering-related disciplines.

The above noted factors – growth and size of the Chinese and Indian markets coupled with increasing competition and decreasing recruitment budgets – imply that with the exception of the top 50 institutions most U.S. institutions will face significant international recruitment challenges. Consequently, to make the best use of the potential available from the Chinese and Indian markets, it is imperative that these small and medium size institutions understand their target markets to develop cost-effective recruitment strategies. Likewise, larger reputed institutions may use market insights to improve the quality of talent they attract. Thus, the focus of this article is to provide a deeper understanding of the Chinese and Indian student markets, and to present a background for developing a cost-effective online recruitment strategy. Given the space constraints, specific details of online marketing tools like blogs, website, search optimizations, chats, and emails are not discussed.

Mobility Trends of Students from China and India

Enrollment trends for Chinese and Indian students are moving in different directions. This is evident from the deceleration in first-time enrollments and total enrollments from India as compared to an acceleration in the number of Chinese students studying at U.S. institutions of higher education. In 2008, first-time enrollments of Indian graduate students decreased by 2 percent from the year prior as compared to a 14 percent increase in first-time enrollments among Chinese students, according to data from the Council of Graduate Schools. Likewise, total enrollment of Indian graduate students increased by just 3 percent as compared to 10 percent for China. The most important statistic here is first-time enrollments as it is a leading indicator for future first-time and total enrollments. At the undergraduate and graduate levels combined, there were significant gains in total student numbers from both India and China, but the Chinese increase of almost 20 percent was significantly larger than the almost 13 percent increase in Indian students.

Chinese and Indian students are also witnessing differential acceptance ratios from institutions. In 2008, growth in total international graduate applications and offers were both up 2 percent for Indian students as compared to 11 percent and 16 percent for China respectively ( Redd & Mahler, 2008). Likewise, for the largest 50 institutions based on international graduate student enrollment size, applications and offers grew by 7 percent and 19 percent for China as compared to 3 percent and 6 percent for India ( Redd & Mahler, 2008). Thus, Chinese students seem to be accepted at a higher rate.

Decision-making Process

It is a well-established argument that the decision-making process of prospective students involves a complex set of variables that include expense (time and money), brand differences, and infrequent buying (Nicholls, Harris, Morgan, Clarke & Sims, 1995). Srikatanyoo and Gnoth (2002) proposed a conceptual model to understand the international students’ decision-making process (see Figure 1). It is important to recognize the interrelated and interactive nature of the process where “country image” plays a significant role. For example, in 2006-07 China sent the largest number of non-EU international students ( 49,595) to the United Kingdom followed by 23,835 from India (Higher Education Statistics Agency, 2008). This is in contrast to the United States where India was the leading country of origin (94,563) followed by China (81,127) (IIE, 2008).

This indicates that the image of a receiving country’s education system may play a significant role in students’ choice of destination, and that destination-country image may differ by student country of origin. It is critical for international recruiters to understand these differences and adapt their communication and recruitment strategy according to the overall image of the country. Likewise, perception of institutions and programs may differ among groups of prospective Chinese and Indian students. In this context, the Internet serves as an important channel for more effectively customizing communication variables according to students’ needs and background.


Figure 1. Conceptual framework for international students’ decision-making process

 Source: Srikatanyoo & Gnoth (2002).

Online Recruitment

Online marketing allows institutions of higher education to effectively align their strategies and engage prospective students through the enrollment funnel. It also provides an opportunity to connect prospective students with internal stakeholders like faculty, alumni and current students. These connections with internal stakeholders are critical in bringing credibility to communication efforts with international students, as very few of them can visit institutions before applying. Online marketing also enhances institutional visibility through its capacity to engage students over a longer period of time. This is in contrast to print advertising, which has a shorter shelf life; or recruitment fairs, which are expensive and last only a few days. However, the success of online outreach and recruitment plans depend on the integration of internal resources and continued engagement with prospects through the enrollment funnel.

Despite the potential offered through the online marketing channel, many international recruiters have not exploited the Internet for recruiting Chinese and Indian students. Some believe that the two developing nations do not have enough Internet users, while others feel the language barrier negates the impact of the Internet. However, the facts show that China and India have the world’s largest and fourth largest Internet user-bases (see Table 1). Even though India has an Internet penetration level of only five percent, the absolute number of users is greater than Germany or the United Kingdom, and is concentrated in the recruiting target group: the younger generation.

Table 1. Top ten countries based on Internet usage

Rank Country or Region Internet Users (millions) Internet Penetration
1 China 253 19%
2 United States 220 73%
3 Japan 94 74%
4 India 60 5%
5 Germany 53 64%
6 Brazil 50 26%
7 United Kingdom 42 69%
8 France 36 58%
9 Korea (South) 35 71%
10 Italy 35 60%

Source: June 30, 2008

Demographics and Usage Patterns

In China, nearly 60 percent of the total number of Internet users is in the age bracket 18-35 and nearly 30 percent of the users are students. In terms of usage patterns, nearly 77 percent of Chinese use instant messengers and 42 percent have personal blogs ( China Internet Network Information Center, 2008).

In India, the top 8 metropolitan cities constitute nearly 38 percent of total users. Nearly 21 percent of Internet users in the largest 30 Indian cities are college students and 19 percent of these students use chat. Two-thirds of the Internet users in the top 30 cities access the Internet at least two to three times a week. Interestingly, 36 percent of Internet users access the web from cyber cafés, which provide public access to Internet for a fee. (Internet & Mobile Association of India, 2007).

With reference to the language barrier, it is important to understand the usage pattern of Indian and Chinese students. The top seven websites in India are English websites, while for China all the top websites are in Chinese (see Table 2). Thus, recruiters should take these factors into consideration when identifying the websites and languages they will use for Internet marketing campaigns.

Table 2. Top seven most often used sites

China India

Source: accessed on 23 August, 2008

Overall, Indian and Chinese Internet users are similar in some ways and different in other ways. It is critical for recruitment professionals to understand the intricacies and subtleties of Internet usage patterns so that they can be more effective in using this channel. For example, use of instant messengers will be very important for both Indian and Chinese markets. On the other hand, recruiters may want to use English for the Indian market while using Mandarin for the Chinese market.


International recruitment strategies in general, and online strategies in particular, should be grounded in a deep understanding of different national markets and student decision-making processes. This article presents the characteristics of the Indian and Chinese markets with the objective of leveraging the online channel. China and India are “Internet-ready” markets and online recruitment strategies should be integrated with overall recruitment strategies in order to maximize return on recruiting investments. This would aid institutions of higher education to not only increase the size of the applicant pool of Indian and Chinese students but also to improve the quality of the talent attracted.


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Posted in Asia Pacific, Enrollment & Recruiting, Mobility Trends, Strategic Internationalization