Will Chinese students want to study abroad post-COVID-19?

The world is facing an unprecedented health crisis with the spread of COVID-19 across different corners of the globe. Well before the present global health crisis, growing debates have been emerging with regard to the future of internationalisation of education, especially as people begin to question the value and benefits that international education brings. The COVID-19 pandemic again raises the issue of the future of international higher education.

Will COVID-19 adversely affect international education and student mobility? A recent study published by the British Council in April 2020 shows that 39% of Chinese students who were considering studying in the United Kingdom are unsure about whether to cancel their study plans.

China is the largest source of international students in the UK, with 115,014 study visas issued to Chinese students in 2019, representing 45% of international study visas.

When asked about their major concerns regarding overseas learning, the majority of the respondents overwhelmingly rated health and well-being (79%), personal safety (87%), finances (86%) and application difficulties (70%) as their major worries.

Worse still, the international media report a number of cases showing Asian students and residents have experienced discrimination or even assaults when wearing face masks in the UK, Europe and Australia. Such images will have affected Chinese students’ plans and choices for international education.

Studying abroad: Chinese student perspectives

It is against the context of confronting the COVID-19 pandemic that a Lingnan University research team distributed questionnaires to non-local students in Hong Kong and students in mainland China, asking them to share their plans regarding study overseas after the global health crisis.

In addition, we also invited them to indicate their preferred destinations when choosing to study abroad.

The questionnaires were distributed online in late April to early May 2020. By mid-May, we had successfully reached out to around 2,900 respondents and secured 2,739 valid responses after data cleaning.

Hong Kong, as an international metropolis, is also a traditionally popular choice for mainland Chinese students to further their studies.

This survey about Chinese students’ plans for overseas learning was conducted after another survey reported that citizens living in the Greater Bay Area (GBA) in Guangdong province held negative perceptions of Hong Kong earlier in April 2020 following the protests in Hong Kong after the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill by the Hong Kong government.

The GBA survey shows people in Guangdong, China, find Hong Kong no longer friendly, safe or well managed in terms of urban governance. Such perceptions will inevitably affect mainland students’ preferences when it comes to making Hong Kong their destination for further studies.

Whether people outside the city perceive Hong Kong as performing well in social management, safety, tolerance and friendliness will have a direct impact on their decisions about studying and working in Hong Kong.

According to our survey about Chinese students’ overseas study plans, most of the respondents (84.4%) said they would choose not to study overseas and only 16% of the interviewees still have plans to study abroad when the global health crisis is over.

When asked about their preferred destinations for overseas learning, the United States remains the most popular destination for study abroad in higher education, followed by Hong Kong.

One point which deserves particular attention is that many of the respondents prefer to study in Asian countries or regions, with Japan and Taiwan being equally popular (on 10.8%), though the UK is rated third (12.2%) among the top five destinations.

The less preferred countries are as follows: France (3.3%), New Zealand (3.3%), South Korea (3.04%), Malaysia (0.94%) and Italy (0.94%).

We found that those students who had previous overseas learning experiences or had enrolled in transnational education programmes through the Sino-foreign cooperative universities based in mainland China showed more interest in pursuing higher degrees through international education.

Among this cohort of students, the intention to study overseas is around 20% higher than among the rest of the survey participants.

Interestingly, Hong Kong is chosen as the second most popular destination by these students.

The above findings are consistent with recent research examining how Chinese students who graduate from UK universities assess the relevance of the overseas learning experiences they received to job acquisition or career development. The present survey again shows the perceived importance of international learning to Chinese students.

Policy implications

Despite the fact that the above data indicate a declining interest in international learning, Hong Kong stands out as a popular destination for those who opt for overseas learning, despite GBA citizens’ concerns about the city being friendly and safe.

A successful world city depends on attracting and retaining world talent. The two surveys draw important policy insights not only for the Hong Kong government but also for society at large. The city is facing unprecedented challenges and concerted efforts are urgently needed to be put together to make Hong Kong competitive and to rebuild its reputation as a friendly and hospitable city for mainland Chinese students.

After fighting COVID-19, academic leaders in Hong Kong need to develop appropriate strategies to attract students from the GBA to come to the city for higher education, seriously engaging with universities in the GBA to promote innovation-centric entrepreneurship.

Our research findings on Chinese students’ choice when planning their international education offer useful policy insights for higher education institutions across different parts of the world, especially when institutions of higher education have relied heavily on Chinese students as one of their major funding sources or incomes.

For small university towns across the UK, Europe, US and Australia, the survey indicates that whether students feel safe and secure will become a major factor influencing their study plans.

Are we ready to embrace internationalisation of education when the COVID-19 crisis is over?

Is it ethical to take in foreign students if local residents are not ready to adapt to diverse understandings and experiences when managing the global health crisis, including the acceptance of ‘wearing face masks’ as a preventive measure?

These are critical issues for us to reflect upon.

Professor Ka Ho Mok is vice president and dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Lam Man Tsan Chair Professor of Comparative Policy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.