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China lockdowns driving study abroad interest, say stakeholders

Lockdowns in China are pushing students and families to search for international study opportunities, experts in outbound mobility have indicated.

"Stringent" lockdowns came into effect in Shenzhen (above) and Jilin in mid and late March. Photo: iStock

Others The PIE has spoken with have suggested that the wealthiest families are those that still consider emigrating from the country

In April, Sunrise reported a 440% rise in emigration searches on the Chinese social media site Wechat.

Very restrictive lockdowns, especially in cities such as Shanghai, have caused a re-evaluation among some families planning to send their children to study abroad, say stakeholders.

“Immigration-related related searches spiked on Weibo, up 15 times their normal levels, with sharp increases happening as particularly stringent lockdowns came into effect in Shenzhen and Jilin in mid and late March,” Sunrise noted in its blog.

While not all searches will result in immigration, “there is reason to expect that this boost in interest in immigration will not taper off and disappear”, Sunrise continued.

Gavin Newton-Tanzer, CEO of Sunrise, told The PIE, that he believed the UK and Canada would benefit from this interest, while Udentity’s Jeremy Nguyen-Phuong said Ireland was also among countries of interest, with families showing more interest in students studying abroad from a younger age, ie high school level.

Sunrise cites the prospect of more lockdowns in the future – and dissatisfaction with lockdowns among the middle and wealthy classes in China – as reasons for continued interest in study abroad.

Speaking about Ireland’s appeal, Nguyen-Phuong told The PIE, “That is because of the ease of being able to emigrate out, the cost, and also at the time, Ireland and China still had pretty healthy relationships and how they promoted travelling to Ireland and studying in Ireland.”

He said costs were front of mind, especially for families whose income has been impacted by Covid and extensive lockdowns.

“One thing that we noticed was an appetite to send kids at an early age as opposed to university”

“I spoke to a lot of families, they would ask us a mixed range of things like, you know, the easiest way to emigrate and get a potential visa. And also on top of that, they were being more mindful of cost,” he added.

He reported that Cyprus, Greece or Portugal have also become viable options.

Lockdowns had pushed many families to press ahead with plans to move as soon as the situation allowed.

“One thing that we noticed from speaking to our counsellor network and some parents was there was an appetite to send their kid at an early age as opposed to university to study overseas,” Nguyen-Phuong explained.

“When we compared that also to looking at what was the most popular search results on Chinese social media, it was actually emigrating out of China and studying overseas,” he added, concurring with findings from Sunrise.

“It will be interesting to see where these families end up going, but I think they are more engaged in that process than they were before and some of them were even more proactive in doing so, rather than being reliant on someone else to do so.”

Others The PIE has spoken with have suggested that the wealthiest families are those that still consider emigrating from the country. Less affluent families feel China remains safe as the government relaxes some of its messaging around the fact that Omicron is more mild.

In the personal experience of Al Wang at Wiseway Global many factors have to be counted in for study abroad decisions.

“Summer is always a high season for the study abroad market. Students tend to make decisions at this time of the year, when they are with their families,” Wang told The PIE News.

With numbers of student attending Gaokao historically high this year, and the student population hitting a peak in the last two-three years, “competition is fierce”, he said.

“It is the same for high school entrance exam (Zhongkao), and Gradschool entrance exam.”

Lockdown policies impacting the country’s economy could also be another factor, he continued.

“When the economy is bad, there are fewer job opportunities, and fewer job opportunities leads to more people pursue a further study. It is a universal trend. On the other hand, a bad economy in a long run may discourage the opportunities of many students from middle class families.”

“We do see a shift of interest towards studying in Hong Kong”

Newton-Tanzer at Sunrise suggested that new seven days, plus three days at home, rules on quarantine meant that students considering undergraduate study abroad might be more open to doing so, knowing they can return to see their families in extended summer break without quarantining for over two weeks.

While the Chinese economy is estimated to have contracted sharply in April as a result of the country’s zero-Covid approach, the government is implementing policies to get the economy back on its feet. On July 1, it announced a $44.8 billion stimulus measure to finance infrastructure projects in the country.

“Instead of going to the UK or the US, we do see a shift of interest towards studying in Hong Kong,” Wang explained, saying that it is considered a more affordable option.

However, the lockdowns are not the primary factor in driving students abroad, Wang said.

“Emigration is another story, much more complicated,” he said. “As a licensed emigrate agency, the number of inquiries we received in the last month exceeded 2020 and 2021 two years combined.”

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