Hong Kong’s outbound numbers continue to rise

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Hong Kong remains an important and popular study destination within Asia and is projected to have an excess of university spaces, relative to local demand, for the first time this year
  • Even so, there have been some indications of increasing demand for study abroad in recent years, particularly in terms of significant year-over-year growth of Hong Kong enrolment in the UK and Australia
  • This growth appears to have been largely driven by concerns over reforms to the Hong Kong education system

Hong Kong has cemented its reputation as one of the world’s most attractive destinations for international students, and is now ranked 8th by higher education data firm QS among the best cities for students in the world, behind only Paris, Melbourne, Tokyo, Sydney, London, Singapore, and Montreal. At the same time, the number of Hong Kong students studying abroad continues to rise. What is drawing international students to Hong Kong – and what is encouraging Hong Kong’s own students to study elsewhere?

The allure, and challenges, of studying in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has for some time positioned itself as “Asia’s world city,” and this claim is well founded for a number of reasons, not the least the city’s vibrant, modern culture and sophistication. The Special Administrative Region (SAR) has close ties with Mainland China but it is also, famously, distinct from the mainland due to its protection of freedom of expression and relative openness to diverse opinions and cultural influences. International students see it as an entry point into Asian culture and economies at the same time as it is connected to more far-flung global financial and corporate markets.

QS considers three universities in the Special Administrative Region – the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) – to be among the best in Asia; all three universities now rank in the QS top 60 universities in the world. These universities are among the nine (soon to be ten) in the SAR, all of which deliver courses primarily in English. Along with Cantonese, English remains an official language in Hong Kong.

Not surprisingly, Hong Kong is attracting a significant number of international students to its universities, with the latest UNESCO data reporting 30,013 inbound international students for 2012. The majority of those (25,801) come from Mainland China, followed by Korea (702), Malaysia (330), India (243), and Indonesia (220).

Last year, The Guardian looked at why international students are drawn to studying in Hong Kong. In the article, Liu Zehui, a mainland Chinese student at Hong Kong Baptist University, commented, “Hong Kong is like a huge hinge where you may get access to many other parts of the world.” Ms Zehui said she chose to further her studies in Hong Kong because she was “fascinated by the city’s cosmopolitanism.”

The Guardian also talked with Henry Zhao, a second-year Australian student at CUHK. Mr Zhao told the newspaper that Hong Kong is “the melting point of western and Asian cultures.”

Not for everyone

But Hong Kong can also be a challenging place to study for some students. Last year, global investment firm Mercer ranked Hong Kong second (after Luanda in Angola) in its annual ranking of cities with the highest cost of living for expatriates.

This means in part that student housing is also in short supply, and that costs of living on the island can have a significant impact on the overall cost of study in Hong Kong. The SAR has eased work restrictions for foreign students in response, and students can now partially offset cost of living expenses by working on-campus for up to 20 hours per week and full-time – whether on-campus or off-campus – during the summer months.

Outbound numbers rising

The number of Hong Kong students seeking study options elsewhere continues to grow. 2013 saw 31,825 Hong Kong students study abroad, with the United Kingdom (12,946), Australia (9,244), the United States (7,681) and Canada (1,614) hosting the vast majority. Recent figures from Australia indicate a 22% increase in overall enrolment from Hong Kong (and a just-over 28% increase in commencements) between 2013 and 2014. While Hong Kong enrolment in the US has been essentially flat over the past several years, British figures show a similar jump between 2012 and 2013. Data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed more than 4,600 Hong Kong students enrolled in undergraduate courses in 2012/13, up 24% from 2011/12, even as overall international student numbers remained stagnant in the UK.

So what is driving this increase in outbound Hong Kong students?

As we reported in 2014, Hong Kong’s transition to the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) credential has created uncertainty and confusion for many students and families. Under the changes, the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (more commonly known as the GCE A Level) was replaced by the DSE. The length of combined primary and secondary education in the Hong Kong system was shortened to 12 years (from 13), and undergraduate programmes expanded from three to four years – all of which effectively moves Hong Kong away from British education models and closer to those of the US.

Consequently, some families are choosing to send their children away earlier to study abroad. According to Dr Edward Wong, director of the Milton International Education Group, “In one year alone (2010/11) the percentage of Chinese overseas students with less than a high school education rose from 20% to 23%.”

More recently, political unease in Hong Kong, driven in large part by the massive student-led pro-democracy student protests of 2014, has left some students and families nervous about an alleged “pro-Beijing” trend taking hold in Hong Kong government circles. In 2015, University of Hong Kong (HKU) Vice-President Ian Holliday announced that the university would be making exchange programmes to institutions in mainland China mandatory. The announcement provoked student outrage and Professor Holliday backed down, promising instead to consult students on the way student exchange programmes to China would be instituted.

But the proposed plan is seen by many in Hong Kong to be part of growing pressure on Hong Kong’s schools to bring in “patriotic” education supporting Mainland Chinese values. Ip Kin-yuen, a Hong Kong legislator representing the education constituency and a head of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, told University World News that any mandatory exchange programme imposed on HKU students could make some reluctant to study at the university.

Indeed, a poll by HKU’s campus television station found that 78% of the 1,400 local students had no interest in participating in a Mainland China exchange experience.

Meanwhile, academics in Hong Kong remain wary of possible limitations on academic freedom. In recent years, a campaign called Concern Group for Higher Education in Hong Kong has made calls for government non-interference in institutional autonomy in the wake of renewed scrutiny by Beijing of the role of academics and university faculty in massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Any such concerns are likely to continue to fuel demand for study abroad for the foreseeable future, as will the recent education reforms. Local education capacity remains an issue as well, particularly in terms of the spaces available in international secondary school programmes within Hong Kong.

For some time, Hong Kong has also had too few university spaces of both local and visiting students in the SAR. But this situation is expected to reverse itself sometime this year. As we have noted previously, the Hong Kong Education Bureau predicts that by 2016 there will be approximately 23,200 university places in the SAR for a projected 22,000 qualified students. This excess capacity at the university level will bear on Hong Kong’s recruitment of inbound students but will no doubt also play a part in shaping demand for overseas study in the years ahead.



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