Chinese school-leavers look closer to home for overseas study

Cultural familiarity, sense of safety and soaring rankings foster interest in nearby countries

December 6, 2022
Four people enjoying a night view of the famous Victoria Harbour to illustrate Chinese school-leavers look closer to home for international study
Source: Getty

Chinese study abroad aspirations are contracting as Covid angst, government restrictions and nearby countries’ rankings success encourage a stay-close-to-home mentality.

Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan are emerging as education destinations of choice for many Chinese mainlanders, suggesting that a trend of “regionalisation” in preference to internationalisation – observed in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic – could be persisting.

The Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (Bossa) says that while the UK was the country most frequently explored in Mandarin language internet searches for education destinations last year, Japan came a close second, with Singapore and Malaysia also ranking highly.

Japan was the subject of almost 3.3 million internet searches between December 2020 and November 2021 that Bossa analysed, just behind the UK’s 3.6 million. Singapore attracted 2.2 million searches and Malaysia 1.9 million – both well ahead of the US (1.5 million), Germany (1.4 million), Australia (1.2 million) and Canada (990,000).

Non-anglophone destinations – Singapore and Malaysia, along with Germany and France – also collectively outpointed front runner Britain as first-choice destination in a recent poll of more than 1,300 Chinese students.

The survey by recruitment agency IDP Connect found that the non-anglophone destinations were rated considerably safer and more welcoming than Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK or the US.

International education analyst Angela Lehmann said Chinese safety consciousness, amplified by Covid-19, had increased the appeal of neighbouring countries. “There’s a sense of familiarity and security in being close to home, culturally as well as geographically,” said Dr Lehmann, head of research at the Lygon Group consultancy.

She said that snap lockdowns, sporadic border controls and variable flight availability in China also added to people’s “nervousness” about travelling internationally, making nearby destinations seem less of a “risk”. Students were also attracted by the improving international rankings of top universities in territories such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

Mainland Chinese enrolments in Hong Kong’s eight public universities have grown by more than 20 per cent since before the pandemic, while the numbers of students from elsewhere in the world – and from Hong Kong itself – have declined.

Statistics from Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee show that mainland Chinese students comprised 15 per cent of enrolments in the eight institutions in 2021-22, up from 12 per cent in 2018-19.

Neighbouring countries are also experiencing spikes in enrolments from Chinese school students following a regulatory crackdown on international schools back home. From September 2021, Beijing effectively banned overseas involvement in most schooling, including teaching of foreign curricula and ownership or control by foreign entities.

Middle-class families in China often enrol their children at privately owned international schools to prepare them for university studies overseas. Now, with many opting for schools in neighbouring countries, Bloomberg has reported an “international school building boom” in Japan led by the offshoots of top-flight British boarding schools. Harrow opened a campus in Honshu in August, with Rugby and Malvern College following suit next year.

The South China Morning Post reported that Chinese applications to international schools in Malaysia had more than doubled in 2021. Dr Lehmann said schools in Singapore and Thailand were also seeing increases from China, in a trend that could further affect higher education flows in the future. Students undertaking their schooling in Singapore or Japan would find it “more enticing” to pursue undergraduate degrees in those countries, she said.

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