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Student mobility from East Asia “in flux” – report

East Asia is unlikely to regain its position as a “global growth engine” for the UK, but the students it sends will continue to be world-class, a new British Council report has predicted.

The report said the region will continue to be "eclipsed" in total student outflows due to higher-growth markets in Africa. Photo: Unsplash

First-year enrolments from East Asia remained below pre-pandemic levels

The 2023 East Asia Mobility Review for East Asia made a number of predictions about the future of mobility from the region, based on the recent past and data from HESA.

“Two years after the pandemic, the student mobility picture from East Asia remains in flux.

“With China abandoning its zero-Covid policy, the chances for a broad recovery in mobility from East Asia appear strong in 2023,” it read.

However, the report said that the region will continue to be “eclipsed” in total student outflows by higher-growth markets in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Going forward, East Asia will be defined less by the quantity of its outbound students and more by their quality,”

“UK HEIs that wish to remain relevant in the region will need to invest more time and resources but focus on recruiting higher quality students rather than higher numbers.”

The report highlighted that total enrolments in UK higher education from East Asia hit a record high in 2021/22 with more than 228,000 students studying at UK higher education institutions, according to HESA data.

Source: British Council/HESA

However, first-year enrolments from East Asia remained below pre-pandemic levels by about 9,000 students.

While new enrolments were falling from East Asia, they rose from the rest of the world by more than 57,000 in 2021/22 over 2019/20, signalling that the impact of Covid-19 is “deeper” and “longer lasting” for East Asia.

The story of the downturn in outbound student mobility from East Asia since the onset of the pandemic “goes far beyond the UK”, and seems to be somewhat out of the UK’s control, it added.

“At the end of 2022, there were fewer students from the region enrolling in every major English speaking host destination market, while outbound mobility from other regions surged.”

New enrolments from East Asia in Australia were down 20% in 2022, new study permit holders were down 5.6% in Canada in 2022, and enrolments in the US were down 20% in 2021/2022 compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to the report.

The downturn goes beyond China, it notes, as two thirds of student markets in East Asia – or 11 out of 16 – enrolled fewer new students at UK HEIs in 2021/22 than they did pre-pandemic.

“The quality of East Asia’s outbound student population will remain world class”

In Northeast Asia, only Hong Kong’s enrolments in UK higher education in 2021/22 and UK visa issuance in Japan in 2022 were higher than before Covid-19 struck, according to the report.

Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, new enrolments at UK HEIs and UK visa issuance have surpassed pre-pandemic figures in only four markets – Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Not all UK HEIs have had the same recent experience with East Asia. Some 21 UK HEIs increased first-year enrolments from East Asia by more than 100 students from 2019/20 to 2021/22. Furthermore, 11 HEIs increased new enrolments from the region by more than 600 students.

“The HEIs which fared best in East Asia are also among the UK’s highest ranked universities, indicating that students from the region grew more selective as overall outbound mobility declined,” the report noted.

Source: British Council/HESA

“Rankings do not explain everything,” it insisted – according to the report, some five of the seven UK HEIs that experienced the largest declines in net first-year enrolments from East Asia from 2019/20 to 2021/22 are also members of the Russell Group.

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