The number of Hong Kong students pursuing studies in the United States during the first seven months of this year has fallen by 30 per cent compared with the same period in 2019, just before Covid-19 emerged in the city, official data shows.
While the American consulate for Hong Kong and Macau insisted demand remained strong, an education consultant on Friday said students were opting to study in countries that offered permanent residency following a shorter post-graduation period.
According to data from the US government, a total of 1,385 visas were granted to students from Hong Kong between January to July of this year.
The figure marked a 30 per cent drop from pre-pandemic levels, when 1,962 visas were granted to students from the city during the same period in 2019. A total of 304 and 1,621 visas were approved in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
In previous years, the number of US student visas granted would peak in July, one month before the American academic year started.
Authorities in the US announced last November that the country’s borders would be completely reopened to fully vaccinated foreign travellers, who had been limited to essential travel since March 2020.
A report by the US Department of Commerce from March had already spotted the trend, attributing the “slight decrease” in the overall number of students from Hong Kong during the 2020-2021 academic year to the coronavirus pandemic and concerns about public safety in the country.
The report found the number of Hong Kong students in the US that year had fallen to 5,878 from the previous year’s figure of 6,778, a 13 per cent drop.
But a department report from January last year said US authorities expected an increase in students looking to study in the country. It came after Hong Kong’s anti-government protests and the imposition of the national security law in June 2020.
The Beijing-imposed law outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
“Inquiries about sending students to US high schools have increased significantly. Interest in overseas education by parents is partly due to political instability and partly due to the work prospects that come with a US education,” the report said.
In response to the implementation of the national security law, Canada and Australia rolled out streamlined emigration pathways specifically for students from Hong Kong in June and November in 2021, respectively.
A total of 4,390 student visas were granted to Hongkongers by the Canadian government between January and July of the same year. The figure represents a more than threefold increase from the 1,295 recorded during the same period in 2019.
During the first seven months of 2022, Australia approved nearly 2,000 student visas, up from 1,400 logged between January and July in 2019.
The United Kingdom is currently considered the most popular destination for Hongkongers looking to pursue their education overseas, with 6,511 student visas issued during 2021.
In comparison, Canada approved 6,365 student visas last year, the figure was 2,805 for Australia and 2,206 for the US.
A spokeswoman for the US consulate did not respond to a question on what could have caused the drop in student numbers from the city, but suggested “interest in studying in US high schools, universities and graduate programmes remains strong”.
Kitty Wu, the director of Litz USA Student Service, a Hong Kong-based education consultancy specialising in US education since 1989, said she did not agree with the consulate’s assessment.
“I am quite sure that the interest in studying in the US among Hong Kong students is not that strong now when compared to the past. It marks a big difference,” she said.
But Wu said top-tier students were still attracted to American educational institutions, including those forming the country’s Ivy League.
“As it is quite hard to find one which could compete with Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of California Los Angeles, applicants aiming at top universities would definitely pick the US,” she said.
“The demand from the top-notch students will not shrink too much as there always is a need.”
But other students seeking less competitive university places now had a wider selection to choose from, with Canada and Australia offering permanent residence status upon graduation as well as several years stay, she said.
Wu said the number of students planning to pursue an education in the US was unlikely to rebound drastically, unless the government there offered similar pathways to permanent residence.
The education consultant said she did not believe that geopolitical tensions between China and America would diminish students’ interest in studying in the US, explaining many had siblings who were already studying or were seeking admission to high-ranking universities.
Meanwhile, a report by HSBC concluded that the US was the most expensive country to study for international undergraduate students in terms of average tuition fees.
The cost of studying for one year in the US was US$29,254, with the next highest being Australia at US$23,275. The average annual tuition fee charged by British universities was US$20,542, while Canada cost US$15,591.
But Stephanie Hung, a 17-year-old student at Boston University, said she did not regret choosing to pursue her degree in the US, as she had been studying in the country since she was 14.
“I will consider the quality of the university and the experience I can gain there instead of whether that country can offer me a passport,” she said.