Peak China? Anglophone nations told to rethink foreign enrolments

Number of student visas issued to Chinese nationals by Australia, Canada, UK and US grew 4.5 per cent from 2016 to 2019, as expansion slows

November 26, 2019
Descent sign
Source: iStock

Leading anglophone higher education sectors will need to change their recruitment tactics if they wish to maintain growth in international student numbers in the face of waning interest from China, according to a new report.

Rethinking China: The End of the Affair, published on 26 November, is the first research report by Education Rethink, a consultancy founded by Jeremy Chan and Anna Esaki-Smith, who previously worked for the British Council in Beijing and Hong Kong. Their research is based on data from student visas or equivalents in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, which they claim can track trends in Chinese student mobility “more quickly than national-level sources”.

“The long-predicted end of the Chinese student boom may soon arrive,” they write. “In response, these major host destinations will need to develop more nuanced strategies to maintain their position in the world’s most important student market, while also seeking new pools of international students outside…China for growth.”

In aggregate among the four countries, the number of student visas issued to Chinese nationals grew 4.5 per cent from 2016 to 2019. That is far lower than the 22 per cent growth in Chinese demand for all overseas destinations, from 2016 to 2018.

The gap in those figures shows that Chinese students are increasingly looking at other options in Europe and Asia. Geopolitical tensions, such as the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada and pushback against Beijing’s perceived interference in Australia may also be contributing factors.

Of the four nations, Canada has been the most proactive in diversifying its overseas student market. It is the only major host nation in which India – not China – is the now largest source country. New enrolments of Chinese students stayed flat, although they rose 15 per cent for the rest of the world. Canada’s ability to diversify is “a demonstration of the strength of its education offer and the foresight of the country’s policymakers”, the report said.

In Australia, new enrolments of Chinese students across all levels of study dropped 4 per cent year-on-year through August 2019, while new enrolments from the rest of the world grew 7 per cent. Australian universities may be feeling pressure to diversify, given the overwhelming dominance of Chinese students, who made up almost 40 per cent of international students in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Chinese student population in the US peaked in 2017-18 and will continue on a downward trajectory into 2019-20, despite a small rebound in visa issuance, the report says. It notes drops in the numbers of Chinese students in language programmes and pre-collegiate schools, which are traditionally a supply chain for university-level study.  

Among the four countries, the UK was exceptional in having a significant rise in its Chinese student population in 2019. “Given perceptions of less-than-welcoming environments elsewhere, the UK may be viewed more positively in that regard,” the report said, adding that the reinstatement of a post-study work visa may also play a role. Brexit, “somewhat counterintuitively”, may actually be helping Chinese enrolments by weakening the pound, making UK education more affordable, and by encouraging UK universities to recruit more actively outside the EU.

In summary, “Canada and Australia have shown that there is life after China, while the UK and United States have deepened their reliance on China’s market in order to boost or maintain their overall international student enrolments”, the report says.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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