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Amid pandemic, UK education keeps its luster

By WANG MINGJIE in London | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-01-03 16:20
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Chinese students maintain stronger presence as loan tap is switched off for Europeans

Students check in at Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport, bound for Manchester, on Sept 21, 2020. It was the first flight by a Chinese airline for students to resume overseas studies after the COVID-19 broke out. MO XIAOJIAN/CHINA NEWS SERVICE

Amid the havoc that the pandemic has wreaked over the past two years, many Chinese families have not completely lost their interest in having their children study in the United Kingdom.

The number of Chinese students in the UK shows no sign of diminishing as parents see the benefits of studying in the UK outweighing the risks posed by COVID-19.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said there had been 28,490 Chinese domiciled applicants in 2021, 17 percent more than in 2020.

Steve Spriggs, managing director at William Clarence Education, an education placement, tuition and consultancy service in London, said: "UK education is still a hugely, rightly so, premium product and is incredibly popular with affluent Chinese families."

Susan Fang, founder of OxBridge Holdings, an educational consultancy, said: "While Chinese parents are still concerned about the relatively high infection rate … the benefit of having their adult children study abroad still outweighs the potential risk."

With tensions between China and the United States, as well as Australia's border remaining closed to international students until now, Fang said, she believes it is natural that many Chinese students have diverted their interest to the UK.

Julian Fisher, a senior partner at the consultancy Venture Education in Beijing, said that Chinese students have been an important source of enrollments in the US, especially for postgraduate degrees, but the recent "daily news reports of shootings in the US have consequences, and the election of a more hawkish US government would likely have a permanent impact on interest in US higher education".

In addition, international schools, bilingual schools and international programs in high schools in China that have been established in the past three to five years are seeing their first or second cohort of school leavers in 2020-21, resulting in a growing interest in studying in the UK.

"As more students come through the pipeline and leave the high school stage, the number of Chinese students aiming for undergraduate studies overseas will continue to be on the rise," Fang said.

Fish said: "It's important to understand that in order to be ready for a UK university many families will have started planning, learning English and attending a school that can offer that pathway while the student isn't yet even a teenager.

"A global pandemic isn't going to get in the way of that commitment. And even if it did, students who have opted for foreign high school qualifications, such as the A-Levels, IB (International Baccalaureate) and AP (Advanced Placement) courses, cannot easily pivot back in the Chinese higher education system."

Figures of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that demand from China remains strong, 4,570 applications already having been made, compared with 4,340 at a similar point a year ago.

By Oct 15, there had been 4,370 applicants from the European Union, 16 percent less than a similar point in 2020. The number of international applicants for 2022 from outside the EU is slightly down, 17,460, as opposed to 17,510 for 2021.

While Fisher attributed the big fall in EU applicants to UK universities to Britain's withdrawal from the EU, he said attractions for Chinese students varied, including "the quality of UK universities, especially those that perform well in global rankings; a growing middle class sending their children to internationally focused high schools… and the fact that, for most, the decision and preparation to study abroad started well before COVID-19".

Donal O'Connor, director of International at the University of South Wales, said: "The Chinese market remains vibrant as UK universities have been very flexible in terms of the mode of delivery being offered, (and) the provision of online study has been very much welcomed by the Chinese market."

Decline in EU enrollments

The big decline in EU students coming to the UK to study is mainly because they had always been highly dependent on the UK government-supported student loan, and this is no longer available to EU nationals, he said.

The UK Home Office said 428,428 sponsored study visas were granted in the year ending September. Chinese nationals were the most numerous beneficiaries of sponsored study visas, with 135,457 visas granted, accounting for 32 percent of the total such visas granted, 13 percent more than in the year ending September 2019.

Before travel restrictions were implemented there had been a steady rise in the proportion of sponsored study visas granted to Chinese nationals since 2009, when they accounted for just 14 percent of visas granted in this category.

Experts say the recently reintroduced post-study work visa, now known as the Graduate Route program, offering international students who have been awarded their degree the opportunity to work in the UK for two years, has helped attract more students.

Matt Burney, director of the British Council in China, said the Graduate Route, established on July 1, "provides a fantastic opportunity for Chinese students to take their next steps into employment and gain international experience working in the UK".

"What is on offer in the UK is unique, and you can only get that experience studying and living there. It is an experience that can't be replicated. This will continue to draw students from China, who will always be welcome as they contribute to the vibrancy of UK academic life."

Health and safety is another critical area that influences the choice to study in the UK, Burney said. "We have a free National Health Service, which students can access, and thanks to its efforts the UK is making significant progress with vaccinating our entire adult population.

"This has allowed us to safely and methodically unlock many areas of society, ensuring students can enjoy a full and enriching experience while studying at a UK university."

British universities have also provided support to minimize the damage of the pandemic on the study of students, especially chartering flights and providing options for those who have studied remotely. For example, more than 50 universities, including Imperial College London, the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter, jointly chartered four flights to bring in 1,200 Chinese students in time to start their degrees this autumn.

With Chinese outbound tourism being very limited due to travel restrictions, international students from China have been viewed as a lucrative source of income by European destinations, attractions and hotels during the pandemic.

Speaking at last year's Chinese Tourism Leaders' Forum, Helen Bailey, head of the consumer research division at a Chinese marketing agency, Guanxi, in Brighton, southeastern England, said: "Chinese students have more than 1.7 billion pounds ($2.27 billion) a year of disposable income to spend while studying in the United Kingdom."

China's Ministry of Education said 703,500 Chinese nationals studied overseas in 2019. With China being the single largest country of origin for international students worldwide, experts say the prospects for UK tourism to benefit from the patronage of Chinese students over the next few years will continue to grow.

Rising numbers

China sends more students to the UK than any other country. Thirty-five percent of all non-EU students in 2019-20 were from China, and the number of students from China rose by 51,140, or 56 percent, to 141,870 in 2019-20 compared with five years ago, the Higher Education Statistics Agency said.

One in 10 students at Russell Group, which represents Britain's top 24 research-intensive universities, is Chinese, with a fifth of Russell Group income derived from China, and at Glasgow University about 31 percent of total tuition income comes from Chinese students, a report by The Times said.

Dimitrios Buhalis, deputy director of the international center for tourism and hospitality research at Bournemouth University, said: "The Chinese student market is very important for the UK educational system … Chinese students enrolled in higher education institutions are not only paying international fees, but also staying in university accommodation and spending living expenses, making a significant contribution to the British economy in many cities with leading universities."

Helena Beard, managing director of Guanxi, said: "The Chinese are far and away the most important cohort of all international students for UK universities. The UK and European tourism industry need to take heed of the growing numbers of Chinese international students to the UK and learn how to best tap into this affluent market and maximize its vast potential."


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