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“Beyond pure numbers, perhaps the greatest policy problem is just how reliant tertiary education sectors are on international student fees as a key funding source,” said researchers at the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy at Australia’s Victoria University. “So many countries leverage these fees to resource the bottom line of education institutions.”
That involves not just undergraduate degrees, but also postgraduate and research activity often critical to a university’s reputation.
The UK is not alone. Australia relies on international students to fill 25 per cent of its university places. So does Canada. The United States, the world’s leading destination for international students, may be less reliant – international students account for just 5 per cent of enrolments at its 4,100 institutions.
But with over US$40 billion a year earned in the “export” of education services and more than 335,000 related jobs on the line, the past three years of pandemic-driven upheaval have raised alarm in the US too.
From almost 1.1 million in 2018-19, international student numbers in the US have dropped by over 13 per cent to under 949,000 in the 2021-22 academic year. Arrivals from China have fallen hard, by 22 per cent from 370,000 to 290,000, as the strict zero-Covid policy kept students at home, and as US attacks on China persuaded travellers to choose other destinations.
US earnings from these education “exports” fell from US$57 billion in 2019 to US$48.3 billion in 2020 to US$41.2 billion in 2021. This has generated alarm.
As the world starts to recover from the pandemic years, international student numbers have begun to rebound, mainly in Canada and the UK. But Australia and New Zealand, which kept their borders shut for longer, are still seeing numbers far below pre-pandemic levels.
Are UK university vice-chancellors justified in their alarm about China and India turning off the tap? From India and China, the answer seems likely to be “no”. While universities in India and China continue to improve, their capacity to satisfy local families’ demands for the best possible university education is likely to remain low for years, perhaps decades.
Beijing-based education consultant Sunrise insists that “the push factors that motivate students to leave China remain firmly entrenched in the Chinese education system”.
It blames frustration with China’s extraordinarily tough gaokao university entrance examinations and the highly restrictive hukou, the household registration system that makes it difficult for urban migrants or the rural population to access China’s better universities. It refers to a British Council study that claimed almost one-tenth of parents of school-age children wanted their child to study abroad.
There is a surprising Hong Kong role in the global story on international students. First, and idiosyncratically, Hong Kong has for decades been an important source of international students for universities across the UK, Canada, Australia and the US, and this has been boosted since the political turbulence of 2019.
In recent years, Britain’s British National (Overseas) visa scheme has attracted over 150,000 Hongkongers, many with children keen to take advantage of schools there.
But second and of much greater significance to universities in the UK, US, Canada and Australia wringing their hands over international student flows, is the increasingly significant role of Hong Kong’s universities as exporters of education services. Of the 93,000 full-time undergraduate students in Hong Kong’s 22 degree-awarding institutions last year, more than 13,000 were not local, and most are from the mainland.
Hong Kong’s universities are rapidly building campuses on the mainland to attract students there, and to build links for local students. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has a new campus in Nansha, City University of Hong Kong has one in Dongguan, and Baptist University one in Zhuhai. Chinese University has a Shenzhen campus. The University of Hong Kong also has business school campuses in Shenzhen and Beijing.
In so far as Hong Kong’s universities succeed in attracting more mainland students, diverting them away from Western countries paranoid about national education security, they can only fuel the concerns of university administrators who need to balance their books, but have no way of doing this without over-reliance on international students – whether from China, India or elsewhere.
David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades