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China’s Covid rules and unemployment driving postgrad study abroad

China’s strict Covid-19 rules and economic downturn are likely to drive long-term interest in studying abroad, experts predict, as pockets of Chinese students abroad hold events in support of the anti-lockdown demonstrations that took place last week.

Some Chinese nationals studying abroad have been supporting their peers from afar. Photo: Unsplash.

The country’s Covid policies have slowed growth at a time when a record 11 million students graduated from Chinese universities

Students in China were at the forefront of a wave of protests against the government’s Covid-19 policies that broke out across the country’s universities and major cities in November. The Chinese Communist Party has now relaxed some restrictions in response to the unrest.

There was a “massive spike” in searches related to study abroad on Chinese search engine Baidu during the peak of the protests, according to Angela Lehmann, head of research at The Lygon Group.

“That doesn’t necessarily translate into action, but what it does say is that the more unrest there is in China, the more the middle classes will be looking to get their wealth and their children out of China,” Lehmann said. 

Earlier this year, The PIE reported that China’s ongoing lockdowns were driving interest in studying abroad, with Sunrise, which supports education institutions to enter the China market, seeing a 440% rise in emigration searches on the Chinese social media site WeChat.

“The middle classes will be looking to get their wealth and their children out of China”

Speaking to The PIE last week, Sunrise co-founder David Weeks said that the ongoing problems in China, of which the protests are just the latest, are likely to continue driving interest in studying abroad. 

The country’s Covid policies have slowed economic growth at a time when a record 11 million students graduated from Chinese universities, a contributing factor to youth unemployment hitting 20% earlier this year. 

“In times of economic downturn, you do see a renewed interest or a greater level of interest in graduate programs,” said Weeks, explaining that students believe these courses will help them to stand out in a tough job market, but that postgraduate spaces at China’s universities are limited.  

The UK and Canada look set to benefit from this demand, said Lygon, thanks to the former’s one-year postgraduate courses and the latter’s clear pathway to permanent residency. 

But China’s zero-covid policies are creating barriers to studying abroad, particularly due to the complications surrounding travel within and out of the country. 

“If you don’t live in Shanghai or Beijing or one of these international cities and you need to travel to your exit place where your international flight leaves from, it’s very hard because these cities are going into lockdown intermittently,” Lehmann said, adding that the processing times for exit documents and passports are also “really slow”.

The government has announced plans to increase the number of international flights going in and out of the country – a move that will be “crucial” to the higher education industry, according to Weeks.

“When we have more flights coming online, then the cost of getting overseas goes way down,” he said. “If we get flights down to $2,000 or less, then I think we’re in a very good place.”

“If we get flights down to $2,000 or less, then I think we’re in a very good place”

Meanwhile, some Chinese nationals studying abroad have been supporting their peers from afar, with vigils and protests taking place on foreign university campuses.

Taking part in these can be risky due to China’s surveillance networks. Many students continue to support the Chinese government and some feed information to the Chinese embassy.

A 2020 report by Human Rights Watch found that Chinese students at Australian universities were concerned about being reported by fellow students to the Chinese authorities if they criticised the government or expressed support for democratic movements. 

“If someone took a picture of me and my friends without consent [and] if they report me or even send it to a WeChat group, it’s just not ideal because my family might be harassed,” said one Chinese student in the US, who organised a vigil in support of the protests. 

“I don’t think I will go back to China at all, but if I ever do so for whatever reason, it will also pose a risk when I get back,” added the student, who wished to remain anonymous. 

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