Analysts ‘cautiously optimistic’ on Chinese students’ return

UK institutions gaining from Australia’s strict Covid-19 border controls, experts say

November 2, 2021
Asian tourist teenage girl at train station
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Higher education analysts are hopeful about student flows from China to the West picking up again in coming months as travel restrictions ease.

The sunny yet guarded outlook comes after the pandemic brought many students’ travel plans to a grinding halt, prompting much hand-wringing in the sector over whether – and when – one of the largest international student cohorts would return.

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president for government relations at the lobby group American Council on Education, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that overseas student numbers would continue to climb over the coming year, against a backdrop of easing Covid-19 travel restrictions and a greater emphasis by the Biden administration on prioritising student visas.

“Based on conversations with campus officials, we think interest from Chinese students remains high, especially at the nation’s most selective schools in desirable geographic locations – despite the travel restrictions and the tension between the US and China,” said Dr Hartle, adding that cities such as New York, San Francisco and Miami continued to see broad interest.

For some US institutions with a high number of international students, the appetite for degrees appears to have continued unabated. At New York University, for instance, China’s share of enrolments keeps climbing. Despite the pandemic, the number of Chinese students enrolled at NYU rose from 8,026 in 2019 to 8,440 in 2020 – and again to 9,749 in 2021.

But a spokesperson acknowledged that not all these students have set foot on US soil. She said the “primary reason why we were able to maintain this level of participation among Chinese students – and international students as a whole” was NYU’s “Go Local” programme, which has branches in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai and was created to accommodate students facing travel and visa issues caused by Covid-19.

In the UK, too, student interest appears to be rising. The country had just over 7,200 international student visa applications in the first quarter of 2021, according to the Home Office. But that had increased to more than 8,400 applications by mid-year.

The Home Office has yet to release its autumn figures, but according to Julie Allen, director of policy and services at the UK Council for International Student Affairs, the country appears to be returning to its usual “autumn surge” in visa applications, driven largely by international students.

“This year has actually been more like the usual surge period than many of us in the sector had anticipated,” she said.

Grace Zhu, China branch manager at the higher education consultancy Bonard, said interest in the UK may be getting a boost from “unbeneficial policies” at other destinations. But she noted recent “positive updates” on relaxing travel restrictions in the US and Australia.

On the whole, Australian institutions have found themselves on the losing side of the competition to attract students.

“Many students who may have put Australia in the mix, or who were already studying at an Australian institution, are likely now studying in the UK,” said Angela Lehmann, head of research at the Lygon Group higher education consultancy.

She attributed this to “fractured policymaking”, saying that “closed borders, confused messaging and…contradictory policies from state to state are resulting in students feeling not only frustrated but increasingly angry at Australia”.

Here too, though, elite institutions continue to see greater interest from Chinese students even as universities overall see a dip in enrolment. Australia’s Group of Eight high-ranking universities enrolled 99,091 Chinese nationals in July 2021 – a 4.4 per cent increase over that month in 2019. In the same period, Chinese enrolment across the country’s higher education sector dropped by 8.2 per cent.

Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson acknowledged the challenges, but took a positive note. “Now that that certainty is beginning to be provided, we may see numbers start to increase again,” she said.

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