There are just four months until the UK formally breaks away from the European Union. Since the referendum in June 2016, Brexit is a term that’s saturated the news, with Remainers calling it the end of modern society as we know it, while Brexiteers believe Britain will finally be free having thrown off the arduous shackles of Brussels, the EU’s de facto capital.
From an educational perspective, concerns spring from the ongoing Brexit negotiations, which are being held by the, “absolutely ludicrous, incompetent, absurd, make it up as you go along, couldn’t run a piss up in a brewery bunch of jokers that are running the government,” which many believe will negatively impact higher education institutions.
Critics argue that the number of EU students studying in the UK will drastically decrease, the lack of EU research funding will threaten the competitiveness of British universities, and that new visa regulations will hinder the recruitment of academics.
One aspect of this debate that has received little attention, is the ever-growing popularity of British universities among Asian students, particularly those from China, who are unlikely to be put off by the UK’s ‘national suicide’.
During the 2016-2017 academic year, the Home Office issued 213,656 Tier 4 study visas to international students, 70 percent of whom were from Asia. Chinese students made up the largest proportion of this group, with 82,220 students, followed by India with 11,699 students and Hong Kong with 9,058.
So after yesterday’s confusion at @CommonsHomeAffs over Govt No Deal immigration plans here’s a thread on what I think we gleaned (and yes I know it’s full of contradictions & I assume some bits are wrong but afraid I don’t know which bits) https://t.co/r0Yzwi9nFq
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) 31 October 2018
In the 2017-2018 academic year, the number of students from Asia increased again, with 89,304 Chinese students, 15,392 Indian students and 9,387 students from Hong Kong. Over 40 percent of all Tier 4 visas are now awarded to students from China, making Chinese nationals the largest group of international students enrolled at British universities.
Promisingly, there are opportunities for UK universities to attract even more Chinese students over the coming years.
The number of Chinese students completing their education at universities in Europe and North America has steadily risen over the past decade. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, a total 608,400 Chinese nationals studied abroad in 2017. Study expenses for the majority of these students were covered by their families, while just five percent received sponsorship from the state.
In 2017, universities in the United States attracted 350,755 Chinese students, and the US has long been the favoured destination for these students. But there are signs that this could change, with the growth in demand from Chinese students declining.
Between 2008 and 2012, the number of Chinese students studying at universities in the US rose by around 20 percent year on year but that growth has now slowed and in 2017 the number of Chinese students opting to study in the US rose by just 6.8 percent.
America’s looming trade war with China looks set to have further negative repercussions, as too will the political climate in the US, which under the Trump administration is becoming increasingly anti-immigrant.
Security issues in the US, where school and college mass shootings have become a regular occurrence, are also making parents wary of sending their children to America. For Chinese parents, the case of Zhang Yingying, who was kidnapped from her campus at the University of Illinois, and is presumed to have been murdered, has also dissuaded many from sending their children to the US.
The slowing demand for American universities provides an opportunity for British institutions to attract more Chinese students seeking western-style degrees.
The UK and US share many of the factors which attract Chinese students to study abroad, including the opportunity for students to quickly improve their language skills by interacting with native English speakers on a daily basis, access to more flexible learning environments with a greater focus on improving skills such as leadership, collaboration and critical thinking, and the chance to develop a global mindset, making friendships and connections with people from all over the world.
Another perk for Chinese students opting to study abroad is that they can avoid taking China’s notoriously difficult higher education entrance exam, the Gaokao. This examination, which is taken by millions of high school students each year, is a prerequisite for higher education in China.
— Guardian politics (@GdnPolitics) 31 October 2018
A student’s Gaokao results determine which university they attend, which subjects they study and, ultimately, their future career. With such high stakes placed on one set of exams, it’s no surprise that wealthy parents are prepared to send their children abroad to avoid this intense and stressful competition.
One attraction the UK offers which the US cannot match is the long history of higher education, with some British universities having been established for over 700 years. This historical prestige is something that appeals to Chinese students and their parents. The UK’s proximity to Europe also attracts Chinese students and their families. During the holidays, international students from China will often travel to some of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, including France, Italy and Switzerland.
Finally, Premier League football, which is watched regularly by 350 million Chinese football fans, is a surprise attraction that often motivates students to choose the UK as their study abroad destination. Universities in London, Liverpool and Manchester are particular well placed to benefit from China’s passion for ‘the beautiful game’.
On the 29th March 2019, when the UK officially leaves the European Union, logistics, trade, air travel and the economy could all be severely disrupted, and university research may well become chronically underfunded as the country come to terms with the realities of life outside the EU.
Fortunately, Brexit is unlikely to impact the growing demand from thousands of students across Asia who are attracted to study in the UK, but whether there will be enough to make up for the number of EU students the UK loses – that just remains to be seen.
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator who has been living and working in Asia for the past two decades. An English literature graduate from the University of London, Daniel also holds MA in Education Leadership from the University of Bath. He is currently teaching at Singapore International School Bangkok (SISB) and spends his weekends drinking coffee while writing articles on education, healthcare and human rights.