Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on International Higher Education and Student Mobility: Student Perspectives from Mainland China and Hong Kong

Authors: Weiyan Xiong (Lingnan University), Ka Ho Mok (Lingnan University), Guoguo Ke (Lingnan University), and Joyce Oi Wun Cheung (University of Sydney)

Cite as: Xiong, W., Mok, K. H., Ke, G. & Cheung, J. O. W. (2020) Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on International Higher Education and Student Mobility: Student Perspectives from Mainland China and Hong Kong. Centre for Global Higher Education Working Papers, No. 54. Oxford, UK: University of Oxford.

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Summary | The unprecedented health crisis with the outbreak of COVID-19 around the world has dramatically impacted the future of international higher education, especially student mobility. The pandemic raises the travel restriction and campus closures, which lead to the shift of face-to-face teaching to online teaching and learning and the cancellation of physical events and activities. Also, many students canceled or changed their study abroad plans due to safety considerations, travel bans, and visa restrictions.   In this study, we examined the Mainland China and Hong Kong students’ studying abroad expectations after the COVID-19 pandemic, as student mobility is a significant component to explore the adverse impact of COVID-19 on international education.

We applied the survey to investigate Mainland China and Hong Kong students’ attitudes to studying abroad in the COVID-19 pandemic to see if they were still interested in studying abroad after the pandemic and their preferred destinations. Among all 2,739 valid responses, we found that 2,312 (84 percent) university student respondents expressed no interest in studying abroad after the COVID-19 pandemic, while only 427 (16 percent) would consider pursuing further education overseas. Comparing the pre-COVID-19 increasing studying abroad trends with our study findings, we believe that COVID-19 indeed impacts the study abroad preferences of students who are undertaking their degrees in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Moreover, the majority of our respondents are 18 to 25-year-old first degree seekers. Given the research findings, we argue that bachelor’s degree graduates in Mainland and Hong Kong will be more willing to stay to compete for jobs and advanced level degrees, resulting in more fierce competition for job and study vacancies.

For those respondents who will still pursue further degrees abroad, our survey found that Asian regions and countries, especially Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan, are listed in the top five, in addition to the US and the UK. In other words, East Asian countries and regions would recruit more students and facing more opportunities in the increasingly competitive higher education sector for international students. We also believe the reason behind is that East Asian countries with a better situation and pandemic control. Also, the proximity serves as another reason because students may want to stay in neighboring regions, where they can still entertain international exposure and easily retreat to the homeland when necessary.

Furthermore, we argue the current global health crisis would intensify social and economic inequalities across different higher education systems when some countries fail to maintain the scale of international learning because of different paces of economic recovery in the COVID-19 era. For countries that perform well in health crisis management and manage their economic growth, during and right after the COVID-19 pandemic, may rebound and continue to support international learning. For traditional strong countries, like the US and the UK, will still retain their attractiveness due to the reputation of their higher education sectors.

Contribution | The empirical evidence in this study can contribute to the studies on the macro-level issues in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic and international higher education, such as international student recruitment policies, institutional management, and international collaboration. First, this paper presented useful policy insights for higher education institutions across different parts of the world, particularly those heavily relying upon fees generated from international student bodies. Since health and safety become the primary concerns influencing international students’ study plans, we suggest both government and institutions should reflect on the critical issues of the preventive measurement under the context of discrimination and cultural differences, such as the acceptance of “wearing face masks.”

Second, a thriving world city depends on attracting and retaining world talents. As rising destinations for Mainland China and Hong Kong students, this paper draws valuable policy insights for East Asian countries and regions to develop appropriate strategies to attract students. Finally, our research emphasized the importance of collaboration in international higher education during the pandemic. Given the negative impacts on international higher education from the anti-globalization trend and the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers, institutional administrators, and educators should acknowledge that collaborations are in great need, individual institutions and countries cannot deal with this situation singlehandedly.