The number of students from mainland China applying to Hong Kong universities has risen to an all-time high at the same time as the numbers applying to universities in the United States and Australia have dropped, according to recently released figures.

Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee (UGC) said 8,622 students from mainland China were enrolled in undergraduate programmes in Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities in the 2021-22 academic year – a record number, and up 13% compared to 2020-21, the academic year after application figures were affected by the 2019 turmoil in the streets of Hong Kong and the 2020 outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic from March of that year.

Universities in Hong Kong and education consultancies in China that specialise in study abroad have noted record inquiries and applications to Hong Kong universities in the first half of the year, which could mean another spike in applications.

Indicator of confidence

With caps on overseas student numbers, applications do not necessarily translate into enrolments, but are a major indicator of confidence in Hong Kong, which is seeing a major exodus of its own population since the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong in July 2020.

Undergraduate and taught postgraduate foreign student numbers, including students from the mainland, are capped at 20% of the student body at Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities, and limited to 10% of the student body at private universities in Hong Kong. However, research postgraduate numbers, which are not capped for overseas and mainland students, have also seen a huge rise from China.

For example, applications from China for research-based graduate programmes for 2022-23 at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) have already seen a 40% rise compared to 2021-22, according to the university.

“All universities, including public and also the private universities, in Hong Kong in this academic year have received more applications for both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes,” said Joshua Ka-Ho Mok, vice-president of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, who has surveyed the study abroad intentions of mainland students.

Lingnan University, one of Hong Kong’s smaller liberal arts institutions, this year received 24 applications for every place available to mainland students, Mok said. For some masters programmes at Lingnan, applications from the mainland have more than doubled compared to last year, he told University World News.

“Here at Lingnan, we find the quality of mainland applications has improved compared to the years before. I saw many applications coming from China mainland students who went overseas for their undergraduate programme and they come back to Hong Kong (for graduate studies) before they return to China for a job. So we are also seeing these returnees from overseas universities.”

In his own classes, Mok observed that “the English levels of mainland China students and the way they present themselves is much better than the year before”.

Applications to top universities

A spokesperson at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) said the university had received over 15,000 applications from mainland students this year, making entry to one of the top-ranked universities in Asia extremely competitive. For 2021-22, around 3,975 students from the mainland were enrolled at HKU.

“We are glad to see the number and academic quality of students from the mainland and from overseas applying to HKU for the 2022 intake have increased significantly. All the students have achieved outstanding results in major examinations including the gaokao [China’s national college entrance exam], International Baccalaureate [IB] and GCE A-levels,” the spokesperson said.

“The increase in the number of mainland and overseas applicants reflects not only the confidence of students in Hong Kong education and HKU, but also their eagerness to engage in the innovation and technology industries,” the HKU spokesperson said, noting the popularity of programmes such as engineering, business, as well as the new big-data-related programmes.

A spokesperson at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) told University World News: “The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has seen a constant increase in the number of applications from both mainland Chinese and international students for undergraduate programmes over the past two years. The jump in the number of non-gaokao student applications since 2020 is particularly high – reaching over 376%,” but she noted that this is subject to the 20% cap for non-Hong Kong students.

“The number of our admitted non-local undergraduate students remains steady over the years – with a split of about half and half between mainland China and the rest of the world,” she said, adding that despite the rise in mainland applications for postgraduate programmes not subject to the cap, “HKUST strives to maintain a healthy mix of students from Hong Kong, mainland China and overseas”.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has seen a 220% increase in applications from non-gaokao students from the mainland who are studying for an international secondary qualification such as IB, A-Levels or a University Foundation Studies course, according to Laurie Pearcey, associate vice-president at CUHK.

“Students in this segment would otherwise be destined for overseas study, given they have elected to study an alternative to the gaokao examination,” Pearcey told University World News. “What this tells you is that students who originally thought about going to overseas destinations are now having second thoughts, and Hong Kong is clearly on their map.”

However, Pearcey noted that rising applications do not translate into a commensurate increase in enrolments due to the 20% cap on non-Hong Kong students imposed by the UGC.

He added that CUHK has seen a 96% increase in applications from mainland students over the past three years for taught postgraduate courses, subject to the 20% cap, while research postgraduate applications from the mainland have increased by 36%.

CUHK has also witnessed increasing numbers of students applying after completing an undergraduate qualification overseas.

While also attributing this to geopolitical tensions and the ongoing pandemic, Pearcey said: “We also believe this is a reflection of Hong Kong’s recent rise in major world university rankings, as well as its status as a magnet for people with international experiences and the city’s role as a super-connector between China and the world.”

Pressures within China

EIC Education, a Beijing-based education consulting agency, was reported by Chinese official media as noting that consultations relating to studying in Hong Kong between January and July this year grew by 41.5% compared to the same period last year.

EIC said the number of such enquires had risen by just over 120% year-on-year in February after the mainland’s postgraduate admissions closed. A record number signed up for the last national postgraduate exam held in December 2021, pushing up the entry scores required for many subjects at well-known universities on the mainland.

Some 4.57 million registered for China’s postgraduate exam for the 2022 intake – 800,000 more than last year, according to the Ministry of Education in Beijing. Many commentators have said this is due to unemployment pressure in China and perceptions that an undergraduate degree is inadequate in a highly competitive jobs market.

Youth unemployment hit an unprecedented 19.2% in May this year.

“Increasingly tough competition for jobs on the mainland has given more young people an extra incentive to go to Hong Kong, where unemployment is low and demand for talent is high,” said a recently released annual report published by the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), a Beijing-based think tank.

One of the main reasons for the rise in postgraduate applications to Hong Kong was that on the mainland “there were more than 10 million graduates in the summer and many of them face the challenge of getting a job. So many of them would have chosen further study as their pathway. Some will choose Hong Kong or elsewhere, but Hong Kong still seems to them a very [economically] competitive place,” said Mok.

Anna Esaki-Smith, co-founder of Education Rethink, a New York-based education research organisation, also referred to the straitened economic environment in China, pointing to high youth unemployment, slow economic growth caused by China’s Zero-COVID policy, and bankruptcies and failures of even huge companies in China.

“This is not the most stable environment from which to spring out and make a financial investment to study abroad. For some, it’s a reason to stay either close to China or in China,” she told University World News.

“They continue to have [COVID-19] lockdowns in cities throughout China. So with that kind of moving target, I think it’s very difficult for students to make long-term plans. Studying in the United States at the undergraduate level is a four-year plan and you want to make sure that it’s not going to be disrupted.”

For many mainland students, the pandemic has made it difficult to obtain visas to study in Western countries.

Mok also pointed to mainland families being very concerned about health issues. “Parents still remember about a year ago when COVID hit major destinations in the West, and their management of COVID was brought to the attention of parents. So they choose Hong Kong, which is close and easy to return [from] during an outbreak,” Mok said.

Geopolitical issues

The increase in Hong Kong applications comes as US State Department figures show a dramatic decline in the number of Chinese students going to the US.

A total of 51,054 student visas were issued to Chinese students from January to August this year, down 46%, from 94,287 over the same period in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the CCG report, the US and Australia are still among the top five destinations for Chinese students, but the decrease in Chinese student numbers to both countries was due to worsening China-US relations, trade and geopolitical disputes between China and Australia, as well as pandemic-related issues.

The number of Chinese students in the US in the 2020-21 academic year saw the first decline in 10 years, falling 14.6% from 2019-20. The number of Chinese students in Australia decreased for two years, with a drop of almost 12% in 2021 and 10% in 2020, according to the Chinese think tank’s report.

As overseas Chinese students prefer studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and commerce, the report warned that overseas students may face limitations in acceptance for some sensitive key technology subjects in some of the Five Eyes (intelligence alliance) countries, the report said.

Mok said that when he asked mainland students directly, they cited the number one reason affecting their choice as the geopolitical situation.

“The decline in [study to] the US is quite obvious because the US-China relationship has become so challenging, especially for students in the area of hard sciences or technology. Originally, they preferred to go to the US, but because of this kind of relationship, they’ve changed their mind,” said Mok.

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By Shi Hai