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Hong Kong poised to double intake of foreign students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Education authorities in Hong Kong are reportedly moving to ease enrolment quotas for international student in the SAR’s eight universities
  • The new cap will effectively provide for a doubling of international student commencements as of 2024/25
  • Foreign enrolment in Hong Kong’s universities comes primarily from China but a new marketing campaign announced earlier this year aims to diversity that enrolment by boosting student numbers from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and other key sending markets in Asia and elsewhere

Between 2019/20 and 2021/22, the number of foreign students enrolled in Hong Kong’s eight universities increased from 12,349 to 13,376, with about 65% of those coming from Mainland China.

Those eight institutions are administered under Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee (UGC), and they are constrained in how many international students they can admit by a hard cap that is equivalent to 20% of UGC-funded spaces for local students.

The UGC currently funds spaces for 15,000 commencing students per year, meaning that Hong Kong’s universities can admit no more than 3,000 new international students annually.

It appears, however, that that is about to change. A proposal to double the foreign student cap has been submitted to education authorities in Hong Kong, and, as reported first by The South China Morning Post, it sets out that the UGC-funded universities will be allowed to increase their annual intake of foreign students from 3,000 to 6,000 students. This will effectively reset the enrolment cap from 20% of UGC-funded spaces to 40% – a new limit that will come into effect as of the 2024/25 academic year.

The last time the enrolment cap was adjusted was in 2008, at which time it was increased from 10% to the current 20%.

The proposed change to again double the foreign enrolment quota arises from a number of factors that are combining to place serious downward pressure on the enrolment base of the UGC-administered universities. This derives in part from the prevailing demographic trends. Hong Kong has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world and the population is projected to have peaked somewhere around 2020 and to now decline through the rest of this century. That longer-term trend has been exacerbated by a spike in outbound migration, due in part to the pandemic and possibly by concerns around new national security legislation adopted in 2020. Whatever the cause, by some reports, more than 33,000 school-age students left Hong Kong in 2021/22 alone.

The proposed increased in the foreign student enrolment cap is the latest development in a pattern of more active recruitment for Hong Kong. Earlier this year, the eight UGC universities announced a HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) investment in a two-year marketing campaign designed to attract students from a wider variety of countries targeted in China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, including Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

In addition, authorities in Hong Kong have in recent years introduced a number of new policies to attract skilled immigrants, including the Top Talent Pass Scheme (TTPS). The TTPS was introduced in 2022 and grants visas to high earners and graduates from the world’s top 100 universities with at least three years of work experience in the previous five years. This follows an earlier initiative from 2018, the Talent List, which targets immigrants in specific professional fields and aims to attract 35,000 skilled workers to the city each year. The Talent List was initially based around a target set of 11 professions but has now been expanded to more than 50.

These policy directions clearly point to a broader strategy of making Hong Kong a more attractive destination in which to study, work, and live. And in this regard, Hong Kong joins a growing list of regional destinations within Asia, including South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and Taiwan that are more actively competing for the region’s, and the world’s, top students.

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