Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

What might 250,000 to 350,000 Hongkongers coming to the UK mean for the higher education sector?

  • 23 March 2022
  • By Michael Natzler

Michael Natzler, formerly HEPI’s Policy Officer, is now a consultant at Nous Group and writes in a personal capacity. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Natzler.

Last week on the blog, Michael argued that with potentially more than half a million displaced people coming to the UK in the next five years, higher education policy will need to adapt. In this post, which coincides with #PIELive22, Michael outlines some of the issues which concern one of the main groups of displaced people, Hongkongers arriving on the BNO immigration route.

In the wake of the new restrictive security law imposed in Hong Kong and citing historic ties and a ‘moral duty’, in July 2020 the British Government announced an immigration route to enable British National Overseas (BNO) citizens and their family members ordinarily resident in Hong Kong to move to the UK. BNO citizenship is a kind of British nationality that Hong Kong residents could apply for before the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. This immigration route formally opened in January 2021 and allows BNO holders to settle, find work or to study in the UK. 

The immigration route does not grant recourse to public funds – withholding access to free school meals (FSM), as well as tuition and maintenance loans. After five years in the UK, BNO holders will be eligible to apply for settlement (indefinite leave to remain, which will grant them access to loans) and for British citizenship 12 months later. In January 2022, the UK Government published polling that showed 96 per cent of BNO arrivals planned on staying in the UK ‘indefinitely’.

Likely between 250,000 and 350,000 BNO holders will come to the UK over five years, but the figure could be as high as one million

The British Government estimates that: 

  • there are 2.9 million BNO status holders eligible to move with a further 2.3 million dependents, totalling 5.3 million eligible people; and
  • of those, between 258,000 and 322,400 status holders and their dependants will come to the UK over five years from 2021 to the end of 2026.*

* In late 2021, calls to extend the route to all 18 to 25 year-olds were rejected but the route has been extended to those born after 1997 with one or more parent holding BNO status. This additional eligible group is not included in the estimations.

While the Government’s estimate seems substantial, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford has flagged the difficulty of predicting migration numbers accurately and highlights the number of applicants for the BNO scheme could be as high as one million by 2026. Just over 100,000 had applied for the route by the start of 2021.

A cross-section of Hong Kong society will come, not just the affluent

Some media attention has focused on the effects of affluent Hongkongers driving up property prices. However, it is wrong to characterise this wave of migration as an affluent middle-class exodus to the UK. Some are arriving from less affluent backgrounds with some struggling to find accommodation and temporarily living on the streets. In response, the Government opened up applications for social housing and access to public funds more broadly in cases of destitution. The visa fee and health surcharge will cost each adult in the region of £3,500, and each applicant needs £2,000 in the bank to prove the existence of means to support themselves. This is a considerable sum for many, with the average Hong Kong monthly household income around £2,700. Additionally, the Hong Kong Government is making it nearly impossible to access pension pots of many of those who have left Hong Kong. Many are leaving behind not only a life but also their life’s savings and coming to the UK with very little. BNO holders sit somewhere between refugees and British citizens and need support.  

UK higher education could provide support in a number of ways, but perhaps the most important consideration is ensuring BNO holders have the opportunity to access higher education, particularly undergraduate education. Promoting opportunity and widening access are key to higher education’s values, but current policy works against this.   

Thousands more undergraduate places may be needed by 2035 to accommodate BNO holders

The table below draws on Hong Kong census data and figures from UK Government modelling to build a picture of what BNO migrations might mean for UK higher education, specifically in relation to undergraduate places. These figures should be taken as an order of magnitude, rather than an exact figure and may be out by several thousand. The data below assumes an even distribution across age groups will come to the UK. As better data on the profiles of those arriving becomes available, these estimates should be adjusted.  

HEPI has previously estimated the need for an additional 350,000+ home undergraduate places in English higher education by 2035 to meet growing demand and demographic change. Columns a) and b) in the Table show there will be between 29,000 and 37,000 additional 18-year-olds in that time. Assuming that the enrolment rate in higher education for 18-year-olds remains between 50% and 60%, and that BNO holders access higher education at the same rate as the existing population, there will be demand for a further 14,000 to 24,000 undergraduate places. This is the equivalent of an increase of between 3% and 6% on top of HEPI’s initial estimations. Far more places will also be needed for the expected refugees from Ukraine. Students with experiences of displacement will be a greater part of the future of the student population for UK universities.

The sector needs to fix access to loans and home fees for BNO holders   

The figures quoted above assume BNO holders are able to access higher education at the same rate as the existing population. However, currently BNO holders will face greater financial barriers to UK higher education. BNO holders will need to have been resident in the UK for more than five years to access loans and be eligible for Home fees status.

In the table, column c) illustrates that between 12,000 and 14,000 BNO holders will turn 18 before they gain eligibility. This runs the risk of barring more than 10,000 BNO holders from accessing higher education when they finish secondary school.

It is short-sighted and runs against higher education’s values to suspend access to higher education for thousands of young people, most of whom are on a slow pathway to British citizenship. This rings particularly true when many in the sector are fighting against arbitrary minimum eligibility requirements.

This is an immediate problem, as no BNO holder will be eligible for Home fees until 2026 at the earliest and the bulk of arrivals are expected to take place between 2021 and 2026.

Institutional responses along the lines of existing scholarship provision for asylum seekers would help some but will not go far enough to serve thousands seeking to access higher education, especially in the context of an increase in refugees coming to the UK.

The sector should monitor this situation closely and urgently find a short-term solution while a longer-term agreement is drawn up with government.

This question of fees opens up wider questions of where BNO students sit – and should sit – in policy terms. They share some similarities with Home students, non-EU international students, refugee students and with EU students, but do not fit any of these common categories exactly. Hong Kong Watch have suggested that higher education policy for BNO holders should be brought in line with that for people from British Overseas Territories who pay Home fees, but do not have access to loans. This is compelling and might be a useful model for wider policy towards BNO holders, but merits further unpacking.  

Fee level and access to higher education may be the headline issues for BNO holders and alongside this, where they sit in wider policy terms. But there are numerous broader questions that demand attention:

  • How should the International Education Strategy treat Hong Kong in light of the BNO route?
  • How will BNO holders fit into existing groups and (how) should they be recognised in university access and widening participation plans?
  • What lessons can the sector learn from responding to BNO holder-needs as they prepare for more refugees and displaced people?
  • How might tensions around Hong Kong and higher education’s links with China change in light of the BNO migrations and what should universities do to respond?

On Thursday 31 March 2022, HEPI with support from the University of St Andrews is publishing a major new paper on the relatively low level of understanding of China in the UK, measured, for example, by the number of school pupils studying Mandarin or the number of undergraduates on Chinese Studies programmes. On the day of publication we are hosting a webinar to discuss the issues. To register for a free place, please click here.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *