As a practitioner and researcher, Dr Cheryl Yu, Senior Fellow of Higher Education Academy, has over 17 years of work experience in international education, currently working as Director of International at the prestigious Jimmy Choo Academy. Before this, Cheryl worked as Interim Director of International Partnerships at the London College of Fashion; and Director of International Development and International Studies at the University for the Creative Arts where Dr Yu created the whole international department and led the delivery of the English courses and international pathway programmes. In addition to international students’ recruitment and TNE globally, Dr Yu has developed three and managed one overseas campus for UK universities in China, one overseas campus with an independent legal entity (joint University in China), and two joint institutes without independent legal representatives. Dr Yu enjoys reading books on philosophy and critical theories and has published several research journal papers, book chapters, and articles on international education.
In a recent interview with Higher Education Digest, Dr. Cheryl discussed her experience as an educational consultant in the UK’s international higher education sphere. She shared her insights into how Chinese students are adapting to changes in the UK education system, building strong partnerships in education, and more.
Can you tell us about your journey and how you entered the UK international higher education arena? What motivated you to pursue a career in this field?
What happened to me was rather accidental to enter the international higher education field. I was in my final year of undergraduate study; I went to find my dissertation supervisor for support. He was at a meeting with some other staff, so I sat on the side and waited quietly. When he finished the meeting, one of the staff asked me if I was a staff member there. I said I was graduating then he told me that he worked for the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), and they were looking for a new staff member to join their Guangzhou office. I said yes, I would be interested in this opportunity. since the moment in 2008, I have been working in the field since.
During the early stage of my career, I was quite heavily involved in the academic elements of international education, more specifically, transnational education, supporting Chinese students on a UK degree delivered in China, with English as the medium of instruction.
I went to a top University in China to learn English, but I felt at that moment, these students really got a chance to develop their professional skills that I did not get, from my university degree.
I observed and experienced how the UCLan programs focused on knowledge (mind) but also skills, presentation and communication skills, teamwork, and deadlines. Importantly they learned through practice, and their educational experience seemed a lot more relevant to some elements of the employability in China.
Working with students has always been a very rewarding experience and a journey to see them grow and become my peers later on.
That is why I have continued my profession in this field. But some of my recent experience and academic research have also influenced my thinking in this space, to be more reflective and to be critical too.
The international higher education arena is constantly evolving. What trends or changes have you observed during your career, particularly in relation to Chinese students studying in the UK? How have you adapted to these changes?
Last year, I did a research project with colleagues to investigate the changes in the ‘pulling’ factors of Chinese students in choosing to study in the UK, 20 years apart, between 2000 and 2020. We found out that, because of the introduction of ranking, such as Times Higher Education or QS ranking, Chinese students become a lot more sensitive towards the ranking. This correlates with other influencing factors, such as employability and the perceived value of a higher-ranked university. The change in the exchange rate (from 1 pound to 16 yuan in 2000 to now 1 pound to 8 yuan), the growing economy, the popularisation of the English language in China, the culture and heritage of the UK, and overall acceptance and understanding of studying abroad mean that we have seen a steady growth of Chinese students choosing the UK as their destination.
So, when studying in the UK becomes a ‘mass’ product, it loses its original prestige and perceived value. During the last twenty years, we have seen a shift of paradigm from ‘studying in the UK’ to ‘studying at the top university in the UK’. With a certain level of perceived or imagined depreciation of some UK qualifications and the increased accessibility of UK education for Chinese students, we have seen a wider spectrum of motivations, including ‘degree’ or ‘experience’ or both.
So here, I would reflect on some lower-ranked universities that find it difficult to recruit Chinese students. My recommendation is to make explicit what you offer and have the right expertise to support you in your China strategy.
Building strong partnerships and collaborations is essential in the higher education arena. Can you share some examples of successful collaborations you have been involved in? How have these collaborations benefited both institutions and students?
Partnership is what I do and what I believe in. Working with agents or institutes, or students is, equally, a partnership, which is built on mutual respect, trust, and benefits. Even though we cannot equate respect with benefits, but they have to converge in a way to create impact or capital return.
I can share some of my Transnational Education experience where I co-funded two joint institutes with Chinese universities. At my last job at the University for the Creative Arts, I worked with Xiamen University to create a joint institute – the Institute of Creativity and Innovation, in Xiamen, currently with about 800 students. In a large-scale project as such, success depends on multiple factors, ranging from regional economic development direction which has an impact on the educational needs and the employability of your graduates, to institutional strategic alignments to have the leadership team’s support, to the effective communications between two universities across two cultures and finally to the people who have the right knowledge and attitude to make it happen.
For a Joint Institute as such, it has to be a mutually beneficial project where the benefits can be measured in financial figures or not.
I would say that for Xiamen University, this institute functions as a platform to further challenge and develop its staff in terms of knowledge and pedagogical thinking; it offers the right education for the local students who understand the local context in Xiamen and China but also are exposed to the UK educational philosophy too.
For the University for the Creative Arts, this marks a significant milestone in its internationalisation strategy.
Can you provide us with an overview of your role and expertise in educational consulting? How did you get started in this field?
My background is quite broad, really, from international students’ recruitment to TNE to teaching and learning, to student experience, and to strategy development.
I was in a position where I decided to leave my last job within days just before Christmas in 2022, not too long after I just returned from my maternity leave.
Leaving the job was a shock for me and I was not ready emotionally. So psychologically it took me a while to recover from that particular experience, and during this process, I was lucky enough to have a Coach and a mentor who supported me to reflect on what matters in life, what my passions for, and what I am good at.
So, I started my journey to work as a consultant. I started to knock on some doors and a lot of them said no to me of course. But I did not give up and kept trying. Fortunately, some opportunities came through and I started to get back on the field and I absolutely love it.
One of the many reflections that I had was – always give people an opportunity! You never know what they can offer you and how they can support you!
As a Chinese professional working in the UK international higher education arena, what unique perspectives or experiences do you bring to the table? How have these influenced your work and interactions within the industry?
Under the current geopolitical environment, being Chinese does not make you so in demand as the education sector seems to follow the wider political agenda, which I believe is not always helpful.
At the moment, many UK universities put a ‘hold’ on their China operation, actively de-risking their China connections and collaborations, or worst scenario, positioning China as a ‘No’.
I believe there is a huge potential to collaborate with China now. And I know some UK universities are working on this proactively and strategically.
Being Chinese in the UK, as a practitioner and educator, my knowledge of the UK HE system and pedagogical inquiries allows me to create a powerful narrative of UK education for Chinese audiences, being students, parents, or universities.
Coming from China, understanding the local culture, many being subtle and unexplicit, speaking the language, and having accumulated the right connections across government agencies and university leadership teams have allowed me to navigate the system and make things happen.
Finally, I would also comment on the respect I have gained through my track record, and being professional and knowledgeable has made things easier to work with colleagues in China. When people respect you in China, they will work with you.
How have your cultural background and international experiences shaped your approach to working with diverse stakeholders in the higher education sector? What strategies do you employ to foster effective cross-cultural collaborations?
People coming from a shared place, nationally being Chinese, or regionally being from Sichuan province, or even from a particular school, always have shared traits, being language, dialect, food, value, culture, and ideology.
For me, the important thing is to recognise these differences, be open-minded, show curiosity and interest, and make an effort to understand others.
Fundamentally, I would start with being respectful and authentic and recognise that everyone is different as an individual.
This year, I went through a rather challenging time, as I mentioned above. However, I received so much support from colleagues in the sector globally, e.g., British, American, Malaysian, Chinese, Canadian, and the list goes on. They showed me compassion and kindness and kept on encouraging me and helping me. It has again taught me to be grateful and kind in our approach daily and kindness exists in our sector.
What advice do you have for aspiring educational consultants looking to enter this field? What skills or qualities do you believe are essential for success in this industry?
To work as a consultant requires us to be really on top of the game, and to be the most knowledgeable person in the room if we can. So, keep learning!
For a new consultant entering the space, rejection, expected to be a norm, is not an indicator of our capabilities. Consultancy work does not provide you with an imagined sense of stability, so you really need to keep reflecting on why you chose this route.