A recent survey “Understanding Hong Kong and Mainland university students’ intentions to study overseas after the COVID-19 crisis”, conducted by the School of Graduate Studies of Lingnan University (LU) finds that only 16 per cent of respondents have plans to pursue postgraduate studies abroad. In addition, Hong Kong is the second most popular post-COVID study destination, just behind the US and ahead of the UK. The research team points out that the pandemic is shifting the mobility flow of international students, and that East Asian countries and regions are facing more opportunities in the increasingly competitive higher education sector for international students.
The online survey, which asks university students in Hong Kong and the Mainland to share their overseas study plans and preferred study destinations after COVID-19 pandemic, was conducted between late April and early May 2020. A total of 2,739 valid responses were collected.
Most of the respondents (84%) showed no interest in studying abroad after the pandemic, while only 16 per cent of respondents would consider pursuing further education overseas (Figure 1).
For those respondents who express willingness to pursue further degrees abroad, the top five most popular study destinations are the US (17%), Hong Kong (13.4%), the UK (12.2%), Japan (10.8%), and Taiwan (10.8%) (Figure 2). The five least-preferred study destinations are France (3.3%), New Zealand (3.3%), South Korea (3.04%), Malaysia (0.94%), and Italy (0.94%) (Figure 3).
Dr Xiong Weiyan, Research Assistant Professor of School of Graduate Studies and Programme Director of Master of Arts in International Higher Education and Management, said that the survey results indicate that Hong Kong and Taiwan are the “winners” and they will expect more Chinese students due to their proximity to Mainland China. About one-third of respondents prefer to study in Asian countries and regions including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Because COVID-19 may cause a crisis of instability, students may want to stay in neighbouring regions in which they can easily retreat to the homeland when necessary. In addition, health and safety become students’ primary concerns, and their parents hope they can be near to them. On the contrary, the travel restrictions and border control of major study destinations like the US and the UK make it almost impossible for Chinese students to study there physically.
Prof Joshua Mok Ka-ho, Vice-President of LU who led the study, said that despite their worsening outbreak, traditional countries for overseas education such as the US and the UK will retain their attractiveness due to the reputation of their higher education sector. However, it is noteworthy that the number of Chinese higher education students in the UK seems to be declining, and that Anglophone countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are no longer on the top of the list as they used to. Prof Mok believes that the better crisis management of governments in Asia when combatting the COVID-19 in terms of preventive measures is the main reason for such a shift.
Personal safety and security will become a major factor influencing students’ study decision. Media, especially social media (e.g., YouTube), reports of discrimination against Chinese people in Australia might discourage prospective students from studying in the country. It could also explain why Japan and Taiwan have become more popular: parents of prospective students believe their children will be safer there. Some higher education institutions may face the cruel reality of closing down, especially those relying heavily upon fees generated from international student bodies.
Prof Mok added that the achievement of universities in Asia in research and internationalisation could become a key consideration for Chinese students. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a precious opportunity for universities to enhance regional collaborations. He suggested that academic leaders in Hong Kong should further develop appropriate strategies to attract more students from the Greater Bay Area and work more closely with universities in the Area to promote innovation-centric entrepreneurship.