Chinese students more reluctant to study abroad post-COVID

The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the landscape of global higher education by decreasing international mobility and fostering the emergence of new study abroad destinations.

Although a sharp increase in international student mobility has occurred over the past two decades, the overall percentage is rather low, with only 2% of the world’s total students involved. Furthermore, that mobility is mainly in a single direction, mostly from the Global South to the Global North.

The outbreak of the pandemic has dramatically changed the landscape. International student mobility has been facing unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic. With travel restrictions and closed borders, many students cancelled or changed their overseas education plans, reshaping the landscape of international higher education.

Universities in Anglophone countries have been more likely to be influenced because they are more financially dependent on fee-paying international students and receive the lion’s share of the world’s internationally mobile students.

The decrease in international student numbers means that higher education institutions will lose a large amount of income and the financial crisis will further affect the implementation of their teaching, learning, scientific research and other activities.

The survey

We have analysed the findings of surveys regarding the impacts of the unprecedented global health crisis on Chinese students’ future overseas study plans.

There have been several surveys conducted during the pandemic and, after a first-round study, the research team added more questions and aimed to examine respondents’ desires for study abroad and destinations before, during and after the pandemic.

Using the Likert scale, this survey explored the reasons behind respondents’ desire to study abroad and their choices of specific destinations. In addition, the research team interrogated respondents’ previous overseas study experiences to further understand their responses.

The research team received 2,036 valid responses from 29 provincial-level regions. Among all respondents, 1,940 provided valid institutional information and they were from 799 universities and colleges.

Respondents covered the study levels from the associate level to the masters degree. Most of them were undergraduates (82.2%). Among all respondents, around two thirds were female (62.0%) and only 249 (12.2%) respondents had overseas study or exchange experiences.

Regarding household income, 61.1% and 31.6% of respondents indicated they are from mid-income and low-income families and only 3.2% were from wealthy families.

Some findings

In the most recent survey, 1,591 (78.1%) respondents indicated that they lacked interest in studying abroad before the pandemic outbreak, while 445 (21.9%) had considered studying overseas before the pandemic.

The top five most popular destinations before the pandemic (respondents were allowed to select multiple choices) were the United States (50.8%), the United Kingdom (45.2%), Japan (19.1%), Canada (16.9%) and Germany (14.4%). Hong Kong placed eighth (11%) in the selection, behind France and Australia.

The five countries that students voted as the least favourite study destinations were Poland (0.5%), Taiwan (1.1%), Malaysia (2.7%), Macau (3.4%) and New Zealand (6.3%).

Based on their choices of the preferred destinations for studying abroad, the team further investigated the reasons behind their selection.

In all, 88.5% of respondents would like to receive high quality university education. An eagerness to experience different cultures and lifestyles and broaden horizons was the reason given by 87.2% for studying abroad. And 83.2% of respondents believed overseas learning experiences and diplomas would provide them with better employment prospects.

Have students’ plans changed with the pandemic?

It is worth noting that 20.9% of respondents would consider studying overseas when the pandemic is over, although nearly 79.9% were not interested.

Following COVID-19 the top five most popular destinations were the US (45.5%), the UK (43.7%), Japan (23.9%), Canada (21.6%) and Germany (20.2%). Hong Kong ranked ninth (13.9%) after France, Australia and Singapore.

The five least favoured study destinations were Poland (2.1%), Malaysia (3.3%), Taiwan (4.0%), Macau (5.9%) and New Zealand and Italy (9.4%).

Plans before, during and after COVID

After comparing the results of students’ preference for studying overseas before and after the pandemic, the study found no significant difference in students’ plans.

However, more students said they definitely did not want to study overseas, with an increase of 17.4% during the outbreak, which shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an influence on students’ decisions.

Students were also less interested in considering studying abroad after the pandemic than before. This change implied that the COVID-19 could potentially cause long-term repercussions for the international higher education system.

Moreover, Japan was one of the top four study destinations for mainland students. The research team believe that, as a neighbouring region to China, Japan’s proximity was one of the pull factors. Other regions in East Asia – including South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore – are also shown in the top 10 table.

When students said they were concerned about health conditions overseas, East Asian countries were more likely to benefit from Chinese student mobility.

For instance, Hong Kong was selected as a destination during the pandemic (16.1%), ahead even of Canada and Singapore. When asked about their choices after the pandemic ends, 13.9% of respondents said they planned to study in Hong Kong, similar to Australia (15%) and Singapore (14.1%).

The future of international student mobility

According to the most recent annual meeting of the World Health Organization, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis itself is not over.

Against uncertain global health conditions, the future of international student mobility is highly dependent upon the control and management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our surveys show that, although Chinese students still maintain a certain level of interest in studying abroad, their desires are increasingly shaped not merely by public health conditions. There are concerns about personal safety and social security when studying abroad.

Their motivations are also affected by the new geo-politics: the highly politicised international learning environment is discouraging them from pursuing overseas learning.

Student learning experiences are also crucial factors, especially when most respondents consider face-to-face and physical academic exchange more enriching.

Whether sufficient support for students is offered by institutions as well as help with visa and migration policies and negotiating travel restrictions will affect not only Chinese students but those from different parts of the globe when determining their overseas learning journey.

Professor Joshua Ka-ho Mok is vice-president of Lingnan University in Hong Kong. This article is adapted and revised from the author’s recent publication with Higher Education Policy.