Can Hong Kong’s HK$10m drive diversify its student pool past China?

Vietnam and Malaysia among more ‘promising’ countries targeted, but city seen as likely to struggle to draw students from further afield

May 11, 2023
Fa Yuen Street Market in Hong Kong
Source: iStock

Hong Kong’s universities are launching a recruitment campaign meant to diversify their non-local students beyond China – one that will likely take several years to bear fruit, academics say.

The city’s eight public institutions plan to spend HK$10 million (£1.2 million) to attract students from countries in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, including some currently untapped markets, the South China Morning Post recently reported.

Last October, the number of students from mainland China enrolled at Hong Kong’s public universities hit a record high, with more than 8,600 of them on the books – a 13 per cent increase from 2020-21, according to figures from its University Grants Committee. At the time, some academics expressed concern about a lack of diversity among its international students, as most of them come from mainland China.  

According to media reports, Hong Kong institutions want to invest in drawing students from countries in the region, such as South Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam, and even further afield: from Kazakhstan, Russia, Italy and Nigeria.

Laurie Pearcey, associate vice-president for external engagement and outreach at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the city is different from many higher education sectors in that recruitment of overseas students isn’t driven by a “revenue-raising agenda” to subsidise institutions’ research.

“Non-local students are important to Hong Kong’s universities through the genuine injection of diversity to our university campuses. It is about enriching the fabric of our institutions rather than the pursuit of deregulated non-local tuition fees,” he said.

Ka Ho Mok, vice-president at Lingnan University, agreed. “We must diversify our international student body to make our learning environment more culturally mixed,” he said.

Angela Lemann, head of research at the Lygon Group higher education consultancy, took a more pragmatic view. “Hong Kong is experiencing a concerning brain drain alongside an exodus of foreign businesses following harsh Covid experiences and the political tension over the last few years…this is leading to concerns that its status as a global financial hub is at risk,” she said.

“Unlike mainland China, which has been driving forward its international student numbers for the last 10 years, Hong Kong has been relatively slow.”

Simon Marginson, a higher education researcher at the University of Oxford, said that despite the city’s clear academic strengths and its location at the heart of a “dynamic” region, Hong Kong has fallen behind similar student destinations, such as Singapore, which has been “more vigorous” in attracting overseas learners.

“This promotion campaign might change things, though it is likely to take time before the effects of it are apparent,” he said, adding that the best prospects of growth were in emerging Southeast Asian countries with growing economies and an expanding middle class, such as Vietnam and Malaysia.

“It is still difficult to persuade large numbers of students from Europe and Central Asia to go to East Asia for education,” he said.     

For many in countries less familiar with Hong Kong, the city is still associated more with a trading port than with higher education, said James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, Australia. He predicted it would be at least five years before universities see the results of their efforts to attract foreign learners.

“The most powerful tool for recruitment is word of mouth, and you need at least one or two batches to graduate before that happens,” he said, adding that the Hong Kong government would need to distribute scholarships in early rounds of recruitment.

As it grows successful at drawing more learners from different countries, Hong Kong will need to carefully balance its inclusion of students from different countries to make sure it doesn’t “crowd out” domestic learners, Professor Marginson cautioned.

“The shortage and cost of accommodation in Hong Kong is a problem,” he said. “[It’s] easier for Midwest US universities or outer suburban Australian universities to expand outwards to accommodate a radical jump in international student numbers.”

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