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What a Chinese Student Exodus Would Mean for Fashion

Travel restrictions, health concerns and anti-Chinese sentiment are disrupting students' plans, with ramifications for fashion schools, luxury brands and the industry at large.
Collage by BoF
  • Zoe Suen

LONDON, United Kingdom — For 24-year-old Serena Wang, the plan was to obtain her bachelor's degree and start a master's programme in business management at a London university in the fall. Then came Covid-19.

Last month, Wang’s family persuaded her to put her London lifestyle — shopping sprees at Selfridges, weekend trips to Paris — on hold. “The virus itself was and still is a major concern but everything to do with classes is up in the air,” said Wang on a Zoom call from her family home in Chengdu, where life has largely returned to normal. “My parents are also worried about the rise of [anti-China] hate crimes so we’re waiting to see what happens.”

Wang isn’t alone. A survey published in April by the British Council revealed that around a quarter of respondents (Chinese students slated to study abroad in the UK) were likely to cancel or delay their plans.

The virus itself was and still is a major concern but everything to do with classes is up in the air.

Over the years, students from the mainland — over 40 percent of the UK’s international cohort last year and 33 percent in the US and Canada — have brought big-spending habits with them. Educational non-profit NAFSA estimated that between 2017 and 2018, Chinese students contributed $13 billion to the US economy, while Chinese state media China Daily reported that they spend an average of £2 billion ($2.4 billion) in the UK every year.


These expenses go beyond tuition fees and accommodation, extending into retail, luxury and hospitality. And whether students delay their plans to study abroad or cancel them altogether, fashion schools, luxury brands and the wider industry ecosystem in places like New York and London will feel a ripple effect.

Staying (and Studying) at Home

For some students, a change of plans will be a temporary blip. "Those longing to go abroad will wait to go to their dream school," said Tasha Liu, founder of Shanghai-based designer incubator Labelhood. Liu reckons that, although a decline in Chinese studying abroad could last for a year or two, globalisation will persist and international education will remain an attractive option for some. But for others, it won't.

It doesn’t help that following global Covid-19 outbreaks, anti-Asian sentiment is at an all-time high. Last month, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that the pandemic had spurred “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scaremongering,” while data from London’s metropolitan police shows that hate crimes against Asians, particularly of Chinese descent, are up 66 percent from the same period last year. In Arkansas, senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn this week unveiled a “Secure Campus Act” bill that would restrict student visas for Chinese STEM graduates.

Responding to reports that the Trump administration is working to cancel the visas of thousands of US-based Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to universities affiliated with China's People's Liberation Army, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News, "They shouldn't be here in our schools spying."

For the likes of Wang, these reports are becoming harder to ignore. “One of [my friends] was looking for a job in the city and decided to search in Shanghai and Chengdu instead.”

Western universities — fashion schools included — have grown financially reliant on Chinese nationals, who as foreign students in the UK for example can pay almost three times the local fees. An exodus on the scale of the survey conducted by the British Council would hit institutions where it hurts.

Schools are already bracing themselves for an overall decline. Educational body Universities UK warned that the crisis’ effect on international student fees could mean up to £7 billion (around $8.5 billion) in lost income for the academic year ahead — the equivalent of a third of all tuition fees. Meanwhile, Universities Australia forecasted that losses could add up to 14 percent of total revenues for the year.


Those longing to go abroad will wait to go to their dream school.

"To fully refill such a significant portion of funds will be impossible," said Olya Kuryshchuk, founder and editor-in-chief of 1Granary, a creative platform connecting students and graduates from major fashion schools like CSM and New York's Parsons School of Design. She predicted that less prestigious players will be hit hardest and expects schools to begin merging courses — or cancelling them altogether.

University of the Arts London (of which CSM and London College of Fashion are constituents) declined to comment for this story. Parsons, which closed its buildings in late March, "has had to deal with some harsh realities as a result of the Covid-19 crisis," its interim dean of fashion Jason Kass told BoF.

“There will be a lot of empty spots which schools will try to fill in by opening to a much wider pool of students, which will drain the last talent from the less prestigious schools,” Kuryshchuk said. A silver lining, she added, is that top fashion schools will be pushed to shed “substandard” programmes to offset a decline in fees.

Some suggest that the shift could benefit fashion schools in China — at least in the short term — like Shanghai's Donghua University and Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, which have a reputation for focusing on technical skills that will get graduates hired at big brands over creativity. "We are a fleeting moment away from Chinese fashion education advancing forward," said Kuryshchuk. A spike in demand for fashion programmes locally will also drive investments by and joint programmes with major foreign institutions and fashion groups, Ortelli & Co Managing Partner Mario Ortelli added.

“I can’t imagine the Chinese fashion industry not taking this opportunity to [upgrade] their own vigorous fashion education system and keep the talent and funds inside the country,” said Kuryshchuk.

Extracurricular Expenses

Fees aren’t the only thing Chinese students pay while studying abroad.

Living in cities like London — a short Eurostar or flight away from Milan or Paris — means Chinese students and visiting friends and family are able to buy European fashion brands conveniently and develop deeper attachments with labels and retailers. “Chinese students really like to shop,” said designer Susan Fang, who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2015. “Some of my [student] friends were Selfridges VIP clients and whenever their families visited them they’d buy a lot of luxury items.”


Chinese customers accounted for 90 percent of growth in the luxury market last year and pre-pandemic, 83 percent of the country’s millionaires planned to send their children to study overseas. According to Ortelli, some brands can expect to be impacted if Chinese students leave foreign universities in great numbers. “International studying is a positive for luxury brands and has been growing until now.”

However, he noted that reactive brands can avoid sales losses by rethinking their store networks and allocating inventory accordingly — something they should be doing anyway as Covid-19 accelerates the repatriation of luxury spending to the mainland. Each city (and each point of sale within cities) will be affected differently depending on various factors, including exposure to Chinese students.

If you're studying in Shanghai and staying at home, you've probably got more disposable income and spend more on luxury.

“If I look at luxury spending in Vancouver, a big component is done by Chinese students and their visitors. A change in international student flows should make brands rethink their footprint there,” said Ortelli. “If I’m in New York or Paris, they don’t carry as much weight and therefore my distribution there is not so impacted,” Ortelli said.

Though living or being near a brand’s home market is excellent for brand awareness, luxury players who invest smartly in experiential retail and digital marketing in China could still benefit in the long run. “If you’re studying in Shanghai and staying at home, you’ve probably got more disposable income and spend more on luxury. So there’s no right formula,” said Ortelli.

From Schools to Showrooms

In recent years, Chinese designers that honed their craft at institutions abroad — like Fang, Samuel Gui Yang, Shushu/Tong, Angel Chen and Ximon Lee, just to name a few— helped put the country's fashion industry on the map.

“Through studying abroad and building their businesses in Shanghai, privileged and talented young designers are building a bridge between China’s growing fashion industry and other capitals,” said Labelhood's Liu. “They’re critical to this globalisation. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.”

Fang, for one, said that missing out on attending a top fashion school could deprive many prospective fashion students of valuable opportunities in the industry. “I’d be devastated if I couldn’t go to [Central Saint Martins]... I can’t imagine what my career would be like now. You can’t learn this online.”

And though demand for studying abroad will eventually return post-pandemic, there are other forces at play. Kuryshchuk pointed out that Covid-19 is only accelerating an exodus of not only Chinese students, but international students in general, from the British fashion industry. "Don't forget Brexit, the increased fees for international students, the fact that it is [almost] impossible for graduates to get a visa or a job after graduation [or] the speed with which brands launch and then fail."

In terms of changes and disruptions in the fashion education system, the potential departure of Chinese students is only one piece of the puzzle. Kuryshchuk noted that the rise of lesser-known European institutions — like Paris’ IFM and the Swedish School of Textiles — and growing opportunities across Europe mean other capitals will give London a run for its money. “The British fashion industry and all of us will need to work hard to make sure the UK stays at the top of the fashion pyramid."

Related Articles:

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