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What student accommodation teams should know about Chinese culture

5 March 2024

Bernadette Cochonat, Head of International Sales and Partnerships at Unite Students, first developed a Chinese cultural awareness workshop for our teams in 2017 – since then, she’s run more than 100 sessions.

Here, she tells us about her workshops: why she created them, some of the insights she shares with our teams, and what’s next for the programme.


When I joined Unite Students in 2016, we were in the process of increasing our footprint in China by setting up a Beijing office. I worked closely with our China office manager to make sure our China team had the right support from the UK – and, in kind, that our UK-based teams had the right level of understanding of the Chinese market.

Very quickly, I realised that our site teams had lots of questions about Chinese students, our largest cohort of international students by far, and some assumptions and preconceived ideas about China. Having previously lived in China for nine years, I felt I could really use my knowledge of Chinese culture to support our operations teams and contribute to shape a better customer experience for our Chinese customers.

The dynamics in properties where the residents are predominantly international students can be quite different from sites where UK students are in the majority, and it’s important to tailor our customer service for our residents – there can’t be a one size fits all approach for communication, events, marketing and so on.

In 2017, I created a China Cultural Awareness workshop which I’ve adapted over the years, adding information about key milestones from China’s history, typical social behaviour, the Chinese digital landscape – including the use of social media, some surprising facts about daily life in China that are fundamentally different from that in western countries and, most importantly, showing why these points matter for us and how we can use them to tailor our customer experience.


What accommodation teams need to know about Chinese culture

Chinese students come to the UK seeking success in their courses, usually with significant pressure from their relatives back home. It can take them time to understand the codes of British culture and work out how to fit in, so they might feel more comfortable with their peers when they arrive – trying to work out together how universities operate, understanding academic expectations with British teaching methods, how to read British people and understand them beyond the language.

They might also not expect the UK to be so multicultural and diverse in its population, with ethnicities from all over the world and a melting pot of faiths, cultural habits, food and languages. They come to the UK having learnt English, but there is a big difference between learning a language and experiencing life abroad and being fully immersed in a foreign culture. It’s important to allow our students the time and space they need to absorb all the information about their new environment and to support them in their journey.

The notion of customer service and expectations in terms of communication style are quite different in China from what we are used to in the West, and if our team members are not aware of these differences, it can lead to misunderstandings, frustrations and poor experience both for students and for our staff members. So, it’s very important for our operations teams to understand what Chinese students expect, how they think, and what matters to them, so that we can work together as a team to provide the best customer experience to all our residents.

It’s equally important for our support functions to understand Chinese culture. For example, our marketing and sales teams must understand which channels are most suitable and what messages will resonate best with Chinese students. Our welfare teams need to understand the relationship between Chinese students and mental health so we can better support them. When thinking about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) to create an inclusive environment for employees and residents, it’s essential to understand how to communicate that, considering everyone’s cultural background, so that our messages and actions are understood by different audiences and impactful for all.

Not everyone grew-up under the same kind of political regime; societies and education systems over the world are different, and some concepts are still taboo in many cultures. We shouldn’t assume that all our students had the same exposure to open media sources, freedom of speech and critical thinking.

For Unite Students, it’s key to understand the nuances in cultural background and behaviour to adapt everything we do with students in mind.


Our cultural awareness workshops

I always start with an interactive quiz with fun facts and prizes for those who find the right answers, with prizes related to China. It’s a great way to break the ice and to get the audience to engage and ask questions during the workshop.

Several site teams have told me they wish they’d had this training sooner, but running these workshops means they always know to speak to me or my team if there’s a situation they’re not sure how to respond to.

My team and I work closely with our marketing and user experience teams to talk about trends, new channels, new technologies available in China and what it means for us. The workshops are the starting point for an on-going discussion and relationship with our operations teams and other central functions – the most important thing is to keep the workshops up-to-date and relevant.

In future, we want to turn the workshop into interactive e-learning for all our employees. And I’m always keen to hear from our university partners if they’re interested in us delivering a workshop for their student recruitment, marketing or accommodation teams.

As student demographics evolve, we also want to expand our cultural awareness workshops. We constantly review our own student populations to review if we need cultural awareness workshops to cover other demographics – for example, as our population of Indian students has grown, we are working on an Indian cultural awareness workshop. It’s always exciting to share this knowledge with our teams, knowing that it will help them deliver a better experience to our international students and ensure their time in the UK is a little bit easier.

Read more insights from Bernadette in her recent interview, ‘The changing landscape of international students’, or on our Accommodation Matters podcast episode about supporting international students’ mental health:

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