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Universities in Hong Kong have launched initiatives to retain local students who might otherwise have headed to foreign shores and to attract international scholars potentially blocked from Western countries.

The city is positioning itself as a safe haven in a world devastated by COVID-19; as of the middle of July, Hong Kong had only 12 related deaths. Incoming students may be subject to strict testing and quarantine, but once they are clear, they can enjoy open campuses with libraries and labs, even if classes are still taught in hybrid mode.

The region is free of the visa wars being waged in the U.S., where the status of international students remains uncertain.

They also have new Ph.D. and postgraduate funding, at a time when even top American institutions are pausing some admissions owing to financial constraints.

The rosy image is offset by political unrest and the passing of a worrisome national security law. The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, which polled high school seniors over the past three weeks, said the proportion of local students considering overseas studies, if they did not get into their top-choice Hong Kong university, rose from 19 percent to 25 percent this year. However, there are few signs yet of a mass exodus.

“Hong Kong has an excellent record in responding to the pandemic,” said Ian Holliday, vice president for teaching and learning at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). “Hong Kong is therefore a very attractive higher education destination at a time of global health crisis.”

HKU’s Visiting Student Scheme will accommodate local students who had been accepted at overseas universities but who cannot or will not go. Starting in September, they will pay local fees, attend classes and have access to on-site facilities. Their credits will then be transferred to their original universities.

HKU’s Presidential Ph.D. Scholarships, launched for the 2020-21 academic year, extended their deadline to accommodate scholars who may not be able to make it overseas, “due to visa issues arising from the pandemic.”

A spokesperson told Times Higher Education that additional scholarships would be offered to “outstanding candidates who hold a Ph.D. admission offer from top universities around the world.” It comes with a lucrative package of about 404,000 Hong Kong dollars ($52,000) for the first year, followed by slightly less in subsequent years. This sum covers living expenses, fee waivers, scholarship money and an allowance for conferences and travel.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong has a postgraduate fund specifically for “students after they have had to give up opportunities to study abroad because of the current pandemic and travel restrictions in various countries.” The new Vice Chancellor’s Ph.D. Scholarship Scheme will give successful candidates HK$216,300 ($28,000) per year, plus bonuses if they meet academic goals. A spokesperson confirmed to Times Higher Education that the plan “received a considerable number of applications from students from various countries and districts.”

Anthony Chan, dean of CUHK’s graduate school, said that the program was “broadened to cater for top students reconsidering overseas graduate programs.”

The City University of Hong Kong said that its new Presidential Ph.D. Scholarships, “funded by generous donations from our supporters,” would give successful candidates from STEM funds for four years of study.

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