UK Universities Recall Hong Kong Exchange Students Over Safety Concerns

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Over the past week, as many as 13 UK universities, including Edinburgh and Warwick, have recalled students studying abroad in Hong Kong due to the increasingly violent protests in the territory.  

The last few days have seen protests spread to the centrally-located Hong Kong Polytechnic University, transforming the campus into a battleground.

“The University soon became unrecognisable with my halls resembling a battlefield more than student residence”

Some universities have given students the option to remain, but have set out reimbursement schemes for those who wish to travel to the UK or their home country.

The University of Warwick was the first UK institution to announce that it was urging its students to leave Hong Kong with immediate effect. The University’s student newspaper, The Boar, was the first to know about emails sent to students by the University. They said that it found it was “no longer appropriate for our students to remain” in the Asian city. The money spent on airport transfers and flights will be reimbursed.

On November 14th, the University of Hong Kong published on its website a warning to students that all lessons ended that same day. Following this decision, Scottish universities also urged their students, who are currently in Hong Kong, to book the first flight home and come back.

Window graffitied and smashed by protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Image source: AP

The Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Stirling and Dundee are just a few of the British higher education establishments worried about the escalating violence and its possible repercussions on the students’ safety.

On November 18th, the University of Kent similarly organised for their students to return home citing “wellbeing” as the primary concern.

Leeds student Sophie, who is currently on exchange at the City University of Hong Kong stated:

“Leeds have tried their best to ensure our safety, they have sent multiple emails, along with a few phone calls so that we can keep them updated on our current situation and happenings. However, this matter is out of their hands and there is little they can do other than advising us”.

Sophie and her classmates have since been evacuated to accommodation away from the campus.

“The University soon became unrecognisable with my halls resembling a battlefield more than student residence, all entrances had been blocked with makeshift barricades and the premises was outlined with petrol bombs, bricks and other items that were now used as weapons. Our halls were no longer a safe environment to live in.”

Despite hoping to continue her studies and year abroad experience despite rising tensions in the city, Sophie has expressed concerns about the financial burden of evacuating her accommodation and the lack of answers provided by Leeds:

“The situation has left many of us out of pocket due to the high expense of living in Hong Kong. Therefore, I think the insurance policy should be more explicit in what it covers and whether we will receive compensation for what has happened”.

Another Leeds student, Charlotte was “devastated to have been evacuated and advised to leave Hong Kong” and although hoping her time is not yet up in Hong Kong, firmly believes that “ultimately their fight for freedom is much bigger than our study abroad”.

Like Sophie, students from other UK universities have expressed their intent to remain in Hong Kong while they can.

Poppy, a student at the University of Liverpool stated “Liverpool are very respectful that this is what I want to do and have helped me by reassuring that if the disruption continues and I want to suspend my studies out here they will reimburse me for any of my expenses.”

The anti-government protests in Hong Kong have been continuing since June after the government agreed on an extradition bill which allowed convicted criminals to be transferred to mainland China. Hong Kong works under the administrative model of “one country, two systems”, as it is still part of Chinese territory, therefore people feared that the bill could damage the city’s independence from the Communist party.

Amid public violence, the bill was never actually legalised, but the protests are still continuing as residents want a more democratic government, inquiries into police brutality and more freedom from Beijing’s control of the city. Xi Jinping, Chinese president, warned that trying to split China will lead to “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder”.

As the tumult reaches new and unpredictable extremes, it is expected that more and more universities, British and international, will arrange for their students’ immediate return.

A University of Leeds spokesperson said:

We are in regular contact with our students in Hong Kong, offering ongoing advice and support. The situation with regards to protests remains fluid and unpredictable with the potential to escalate quickly, and while FCO advice is unchanged, we are advising students who remain in Hong Kong to leave and we will support them in every way to do so. Teaching has moved to online provision at all universities in Hong Kong. 

In local district council elections last night with the highest turnout since they were first held in 1999, more than half of the 452 seats were flipped from pro-Beijing to pro-democracy candidates. Many of those involved in recent protests were elected and several pro-Beijing incumbents lost seats.

Main image: Reuters