Hong Kong brain drain predicted as West launches ‘lifeboats’

Experts predict a post-Covid wave of emigration to the West, but university enrolment likely to unscathed

December 3, 2020
Source: iStock

Hong Kong faces a brain drain of students and graduates who are expected to take advantage of “lifeboat” immigration schemes offered by the UK, Canada and Australia, it has been warned.

A poll by the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that 44 per cent of Hong Kongers would emigrate if given the chance. Of those, 35 per cent have taken action to move, making up about 15 per cent of all polled respondents. This is a “significant increase” from 2018, with more interest shown by younger respondents.

The researchers likened the potential exodus to earlier politically motivated waves of emigration in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It has been attributed to concern over a controversial national security law imposed in late June, which has clamped down on academic and other freedoms.  

The most generous of the “lifeboat” schemes comes from the UK. Starting on 31 January, Hong Kong holders of British National (Overseas) passports – plus their spouses, partners and children – can start on a pathway to citizenship.

Britain is preparing for a 100 per cent increase in Hong Kong immigrants, according to The Daily Telegraph, which cited internal documents. There were almost 350,000 Hong Kong BNO holders in February and 400,000 in August, with 200,000 applications pending. The government estimated that could reach more than 730,000 by the end of this year.

Jeff Wasserstrom, a Chinese history professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, told Times Higher Education that “there could well be a new wave of emigration from Hong Kong due to the  national security law”.

Some youth may “feel that so many of the special features of Hong Kong have been destroyed or on the brink of destruction that they need to consider seriously finding an exit strategy,” he said. 

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London and an expert on modern Hong Kong history, said that Covid was a “main constraining factor in emigration” in the short term, but that “the passing of the security law will almost certainly result in an outflow of Hong Kong’s population”.

“The outflow of people who are welcomed by recipient countries will inevitably imply a brain drain,” he told THE. “UK universities welcome overseas students generally and Hong Kong students are usually among the best who join British universities.” 

Canada’s new measures will “allow Hong Kong students and youth to quickly come to Canada on work and study permits, as well as new pathways to stay permanently”.

Graduates from postsecondary institutions will be able to apply directly for permanent residency, and sponsor spouses, partners and children. The government clarified that participation in demonstrations would not be held against applicants.   

Australia, meanwhile, said that its scheme would “attract Hong Kong’s best and brightest who have contributed significantly to our economic growth and job creation”.

Current and future Hong Kong students at Australian universities, temporary graduates and skilled workers will be eligible for five-year visas and a path to permanent residency. Those filling skill shortages in regional areas will have an even faster pathway.  

Similar schemes are being considered in the US and New Zealand.  

While the city’s more worldly or affluent students may leave, emigration is unlikely to result in an immediate drop in budgets or enrolments for Hong Kong universities, which are largely state funded and have historically been oversubscribed. The government keeps a strict cap on local undergraduate spaces, which is lower than the number of high school leavers.

For the 2020-21 school year, there was a 6 per cent drop in the number of eligible local undergraduate candidates. However, all 15,000 spots were still filled, albeit with a drop in average exam scores for entrants.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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