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Sang Peng, president, BOSSA, China

Sang Peng, co-founder and president of the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association has spent decades working in international education in China. He spoke to The PIE about how Covid-19 is impacting outbound students and education agents.


BOSSASang Peng is the president of BOSSA. Photo: BOSSA

BOSSA members include 300 agencies and over 1,500 individual counsellors

The PIE: Tell us about the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association?

Sang Peng: BOSSA was founded in 2004. It’s a non-profit, government-supported organisation whose members include 300 Chinese international education agencies and over 1,500 individual counsellors who help Chinese students study abroad.

“BOSSA members account for two-thirds of Chinese students sent abroad”

Altogether, BOSSA members account for two-thirds of Chinese students sent abroad. In China, I believe we’re the only running association involved in the study abroad sector at the moment. We also organise trips for our members to visit study destinations like the UK.

The PIE: How has COVID-19 impacted education agents in China?

SP: The biggest challenge is financial, but it’s the same for all industries in China at the moment. We think that as the pandemic dies down things will get better.

At the very beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in China, we did a survey on how the pandemic would impact the industry.

Back in February, the survey found agents were reporting issues such as cancelled tests, delayed starts, and travel restrictions, with 66% of agents predicting a decline in the number of students studying abroad this year.

Traditional agents were able to open their physical offices but they couldn’t have students coming to them. They’d communicate with students via phone or online. We also changed our offline event in March to an online event.

BOSSA has also been supporting several new tech platforms for agents where counsellors and agents can recruit students or give lectures online.

The PIE: How has Covid-19 affected students’ study plans?

SP: We can put them into three groups. The first group is those that will start their studies in autumn. Their biggest concern is whether universities can start classes in September or October.

Another group is students that will start their studies in the next academic year. Their biggest concerns are about health issues overseas and when the pandemic is going to stop spreading and such.

Then the third group are students considering whether they are going to go abroad to study or just stay in China.

“Students who have already gotten offers… must go abroad otherwise they’re going to waste a whole year”

But for students enrolled this year for undergraduate level, they will have to study abroad because they cannot study at undergraduate level in China if they don’t have the gaokao.

For K-12 students, they might start in China at an international high school or private high school but the students who have already gotten offers from the university for this year, they must go abroad otherwise they’re going to waste a whole year.

The PIE: How do students feel about having to start their courses online?

SP: The online courses are for a semester or a full year. It is a solution, but not the best because the students won’t get to experience the local culture. That’s really a loss. In addition, Chinese parents and families just really cannot accept online learning, especially for a long time.

In China, we have a regulation so that when students go abroad to study they have to get recognition from the government saying they obtained their diploma or degree from overseas. But if they studied overseas for less than a year, it’s difficult or even impossible to get that kind of recognition.

For example, a postgraduate student can go to somewhere like the UK and do a one-year, one-and-a-half-year or two-year course. If they study online for one year in China and then only have half a year overseas, it’s going to be difficult to get their qualification recognised.

The PIE: How can universities better support Chinese students?

SP: I think the first thing is that universities have to confirm if they can start their academic year in September or October. If they do that students and parents can then make decisions about flights and visas.

Visas are an obstacle. Some countries are still not issuing them. We don’t have any news about when they are going to start issuing visas again. But even if they resume, students who want to get a student visa need their CASS or other documents from the universities saying when the academic year will start. So we’re still looking to hear confirmation from universities.

The PIE: Have recent political issues between China and countries like the US and Australia encouraged students to look for alternative destinations?

SP: From our point of view, deep political issues are not big issues for parents or students. If parents hear something in the media, a very small number might change their plans but from our experience, if the family has already decided on a certain study abroad destination, they will not change it. It would require a huge workload and a lot of paperwork.

In terms of the pandemic, universities need to provide us and the students with information about the situation of the pandemic in their local area, because in China the news we receive about some things may be different from the local place.

Secondly, if universities cannot start a course this year, what actions are they going to take to help students catch up or postpone their offers for a year?

“If the family has already decided on a certain study abroad destination, they will not change it”

Overall we believe the main reason students and parents are changing study destinations is money and generally, they’re changing to more affordable countries such as elsewhere in Asia.

But if they have enough money, they will not change their destination. The economy is really not good right now in China, or across the world, so it really depends on how fast things can recover. We think that this year things will stay low like this and we’re hoping developments will be better next year.

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