Hong Kong considers raising cap on non-local students

Universities consulted on increasing limit from current level of 20 per cent in face of demographic decline

July 4, 2023
People watch the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Race to illustrate Hong Kong could lift cap on non-locals
Source: Getty images
Making up the numbers a low birth rate and wave of emigration have caused Hong Kong’s population to decrease rapidly

Hong Kong’s government has begun consulting universities about lifting its cap on international students, potentially bringing thousands more to the island in coming years, according to senior university officials.

Legislators are looking to relax the official 20 per cent limit on “non-local” undergraduate students – roughly half of whom come from mainland China – that the island’s eight government-funded universities are allowed to admit, sector leaders with knowledge of the issue told Times Higher Education.

A rapidly falling population is compelling universities to think about admitting more overseas learners. Along with a low birth rate, the wave of emigration following the politically contentious National Security Law has driven demographic decline. Some 33,604 school-age students left the island in 2021-22.

With the knock-on effect due to be felt by universities in coming years, internal discussions have started on how the numbers of non-local students could increase in coming years.

“A number of people are saying it’s a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’,” said Laurie Pearcey, associate vice-president for external engagement and outreach at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

He said that both in academia and in higher levels of government, people are “seriously discussing this”, noting a recent exchange in which lawmakers quizzed Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, about the sector’s capacity to absorb more overseas students.

Other signs, such as recent initiatives to create new pathways for residency and attract highly educated workers, indicate that a re-evaluation of the policy could be on the way, he added. The government is also working on permitting undergraduates to work part-time during their studies and making it easier for them to stay to work after getting their degrees.

Admitting more international students is one way of supplementing lower numbers of local students, but the strategy is not without controversy. In recent years, some scholars have expressed concern that the growing intake of mainland students has changed the dynamics of Hong Kong institutions.

Atmosphere aside, taking in more non-local students also raises questions over funding. Although more international students are ultimately needed to “sustain universities”, they are also seen as a sap on limited government resources, said Lewis Ting On Cheung, professor of social sciences at the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK). 

While outsiders pay higher fees than locals, they still receive government subsidies – and ultimately taxpayers’ money. Professor Cheung believed it was unfair for Hong Kongers to pay in part for overseas students’ education. Because of limited land on the island, finding enough accommodation for students is also a problem. 

Stephen Cheung, EdUHK’s president, said that for decision-makers, the challenge was twofold: figuring out the “right percentage” of international students and how much to charge so low-income students can still come.

“I’d like to see the best students come, and also not at the cost of our local students,” he said.

While he declined to speculate on how much the cap should go up, Professor Cheung said that raising the international cap was “in general the direction we should move in”.

Mr Pearcey was sceptical that the increase would be anywhere near a doubling of the current 20 per cent – or that Hong Kong’s universities would come to rely on international students the way that US and UK universities do.

“I can’t see Hong Kong institutions opening up the floodgates,” he said. “We’re not going to see the creation of an education industry here.”



Print headline: Hong Kong could lift cap on non-locals

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