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Nation sends record number of students to UK

By WANG MINGJIE in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-02-10 09:35

A booth promoting study in the United Kingdom at the China Annual Conference for International Education and Expo in Beijing on Oct 23, 2021. GUO HAIPENG/CHINA NEWS SERVICE

China sent a record number of 151,690 students to the United Kingdom in 2021-22, more than any other country or alliance, including the European Union, according to the latest data from UK-based Higher Education Statistics Agency, or HESA.

Experts say the prestige of the British university system and a relatively safe environment are among the key reasons for Chinese students being keen to study in the UK. The geopolitical tensions between China and the United States and Australia further work in the UK's favor.

The HESA data revealed that the number of Chinese students in the UK has jumped by 44,475, or 41 percent, between 2017-18 and 2021-22, and 27 percent of all non-EU students were from China in the last enrollment year.

William Vanbergen, founder of BE Education, an international education services provider in China, said, "UK universities have been and are traditionally held in high regard by Chinese families. US geopolitical tensions have shifted a number of potential applicants to the UK."

"The UK is attractive in terms of price and time (three years for undergraduate studies and one year for masters) compared to most other countries. The UK is perceived as safe, especially in light of the number of gun crimes in the US reported in the media," he added.

Julian Fisher, a senior partner at the consultancy Venture Education, said what has also contributed to the growing number of Chinese students studying in the UK is that the past 20 years saw a boom in English teaching in China, aligned with the growth of internationally oriented schools, summer camps and after-school activities.

He said that these factors, combined with the growth of the middle-income group in China, the competitiveness of Chinese university entry, geopolitical tensions with the US and Australia, the relative stability and quality of UK education had all contributed to the increased numbers.

HESA's record for 2021-22 showed for the first time that the number of Chinese students enrolled overtook the total number from the EU(120,140), a significant drop of 21 percent compared with the year before.

The first-year EU domiciled enrollments dropped even further, by 53 percent from 2020-21 to 2021-22. Such a decrease aligns with the UK's exit from the EU and a change in the international fee policy on Aug 1, 2021.

Susan Fang, founder of educational consultancy OxBridge Holdings, said, "It is a simple matter of economics. EU student numbers will continue to drop until supply and demand reach equilibrium. That's when the remaining interested students are willing to pay the higher fees charged."

"With many European universities, such as those in the Netherlands and Ireland, offering degrees taught in English at a fraction of a UK degree's price, and with well-resourced US universities offering generous scholarship packages to the most competitive students, it will be tough for the UK to attract European students," Fang explained.

While EU enrollment numbers saw a decrease in 2021-22, non-EU first-year enrollments rose by 32 percent.

Apart from China, India has also seen a sharp rise of students studying in British universities, with a notable increase of 106,200 over the five-year period. In 2021-22,126,535 Indian students enrolled in the UK, representing 23 percent of all non-EU enrollments.

The large number of Chinese students in UK universities has also raised concerns about an overreliance on this market for income.

"Ideally, no one should put all their eggs in one basket. For the sake of students and faculty experience, it is always good to have a healthy diversity. But, we don't live in an ideal world," Fang said.

"If China continues to be the world's largest source of self-funding international students, I would argue that efforts are better invested in how best to retain UK universities' appeal to Chinese students," she said.

"Then again, the way India has risen dramatically in these past three years, soon — if not already-UK higher education stakeholders will start worrying about being overreliant on Indian students," Fang added.

While the UK's two-year, post-study work visa partially explains the increase in the number of students attending higher education in the UK, recent reports suggest Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman has drawn up a plan to reform the graduate visa route.

Under Braverman's proposal, international students must either obtain a work visa by getting a skilled job or will have to leave the UK within six months of completing their studies.

Fisher said the potential impact on the Chinese won't be as great as that on Indians or Nigerians. "The post-study work visa work route is far more popular with some countries, such as India, than China. Per capita Chinese engagement is actually relatively low. Chinese students primarily attend university to get a degree and are often well-funded by their families," he said.

He added that while the Chinese student numbers have increased in the UK for decades, the same will plateau sometime soon and then likely see a long-term, gradual decline.

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