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China: Could lockdown fatigue influence outbound student mobility?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Analysts are reporting surges in search traffic for study abroad within lockdown-affected areas in China
  • The pandemic is continuing to disrupt some study abroad planning at least for Chinese students, with thousands of locked-down students recently prevented from sitting Advanced Placement exams needed for admission to some US and European universities

It is too early to be definitive about this, but the pandemic appears to have had a larger-than-expected impact on outbound student numbers from China. There are a number of factors at work in this, including extended Australian border closures and frosty US-Sino relations. But recruiters are wondering, in the midst of all that, whether or not COVID has acted as an accelerator for some longer-term trends that were unspooling in China before 2020.

A recent analysis from Times Higher Education, for example, points out that a pre-pandemic downward trajectory in the number of Chinese students going abroad for post-graduate studies appears to have deepened over the last two years. In examining graduate outcomes for students from China’s top 10 universities, THE finds essentially that fewer students are going to graduate schools abroad, and that they are opting instead to remain in China to pursue an advanced degree.

In commenting on the THE findings, industry experts put forward a number of possible factors for the downward curve in outbound graduate students, including strained foreign relations (especially with the US), the expansion (and improved ranking and recognition) of Chinese universities, and underlying changes in the Chinese job market. As Education Rethink co-founder Anna Esaki-Smith explained to THE, “There is less of a reason for Chinese students to leave the country in order to earn an academic credential that is globally recognised and valued.”

We have to be cautious in interpreting those trends, however, as the top 10 or 20 Chinese universities is hardly the whole market and there are some indications of continuing demand for foreign degrees among graduates of universities outside of that top tier.

And there are some signs of strengthening outbound numbers around the end of 2021 and first months of 2022, and for some destinations at least. In the UK, for example, the February 2022 data release from the national UCAS admissions service reports 12% year-over-year growth in the number of Chinese applicants. And in Canada, immigration officials report that the number of new study permits issued to Chinese applicants in 2021 (19,640 in total) exceeded the number granted in 2019 (16,176).

Given the tremendous importance of the Chinese market in driving overall enrolment for study destinations worldwide, these are all trends to continue to examine closely. And to those, we can now add another variable for this complex marketplace: lockdown fatigue.

The Chinese government has for most of the pandemic maintained a “zero COVID” approach to controlling COVID infections. This has famously led to extended border closures that have disrupted the study programmes for thousands of visiting students. More recently, this aggressive strategy has also led to severe lockdowns affecting, as of 28 March 2022, tens of millions in Shanghai. Travel bans and partial lockdowns are also in place in other provinces and cities throughout the country, notably in Jilin province. By some estimates, nearly 400 million people were living under full or partial lockdown conditions in China as of mid-April.

Those lockdowns already appear to be having an impact on study abroad. Thousands of high school students learned last week, for example, that COVID restrictions will prevent them from taking the College Board-administered Advanced Placement exams, a step that some students take to improve their chances of admissions at universities in the US and Europe.

At the same time, there are indications that the lockdowns are inspiring residents in locked-down areas to look more carefully at studying or even emigrating abroad. Another recent analysis, this time from Sunrise International, finds that search traffic volumes for queries about emigration and study abroad are surging in locked-down areas. “In a recent analysis of Baidu searches in Jiangsu province, researchers found that search volumes relating to immigration increased by 24 times,” notes Sunrise. “Over a similar time period, immigration searches on Wechat increased by 440%, up to about 50 million searches, on April 3rd as lockdowns swept across more cities. Immigration-related related searches also spiked on Weibo, up 15 times their normal levels, with sharp increases happening as particularly stringent lockdowns came into effect in Shenzhen and Jilin in mid and late March. This has translated into study-abroad related searches, which spiked at around the same time on Baidu.”

Sunrise recommends that international recruiters keep in close touch with partners and prospects in lockdown-affected regions and re-invest in digital marketing in China during this period, including allocating “some resources to digital marketing on Chinese search and social media platforms. The students and parents will certainly be online at the moment.”

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