Sustainable international recruitment in the post-pandemic world

Ahead of the British Council's International Education virtual festival Maddalaine Ansell takes stock of the state of international recruitment.

Maddalaine Ansell is Director of Education at the British Council.

Early in 2020, international student mobility looked as if it was on an unending upward trajectory.

Despite doubts about rising costs and graduate employability, the fundamental drivers of international student demand looked strong. The global middle class, increasing in size year on year, wanted access to higher education for their children. In many countries supply, although increasing rapidly, particularly in China, was not able to keep up with demand. The UK International Education strategy, published in March 2019, had a core ambition to increase the number of international HE students in the UK to 600,000 by 2030. This seemed firmly on track.

As we approach the end of a traumatic year, the future is considerably more difficult to predict. In the UK, international enrolments for the current academic year remain uncertain, and the ongoing pandemic will continue to shape students’ decisions about where they will study in 2021-22.

At the start of this year’s autumn term, the British Council ran a series of surveys which identified that international students in priority recruitment markets who had accepted places in the UK this year were very uncertain about whether to keep or cancel their plans. UK study visa statistics then revealed a 44 per cent year-on-year decline in the third quarter of the academic year, suggesting that many students didn’t have firm plans to travel to the UK in 2020. Decision-making delays increase the risk of late withdrawals or lower January enrolments.

The feedback we’ve received through our interactions and surveys with institutions is that UK universities are more positive about 2020 enrolment (for non-EU students) now compared to how they felt in June, and the UCAS end of cycle data shows a nine per cent increase in applications from non-EU students for 2020 intake – clearly, there remains a global demand for international education.

While the new Covid-19 vaccines will undoubtedly reassure students about the possibility, and safety, of study overseas, the roll out will take time and the new strains of coronavirus will stoke the significant health concerns reported particularly by East Asian students. The economic effects of the pandemic are also likely to influence student decision-making for years to come. Scholarships and loans to support overseas study may be in short supply as governments across the world look to reduce spending.

A sustainable future

Beyond 2021 international recruiters worldwide face a more critical question – how must the offer to international students change if it is to remain relevant and attractive to students? The pandemic has made it challenging for universities to offer the full mix of academic, extra-curricular and social activities that persuade students to travel across the world and pay high fees. Some see this as a threat, hastening the “great unbundling” of higher education that has been predicted for decades. Others see it as the burning platform required to create a new digital offer that puts the student’s experience at the heart of the institution’s digital strategy.

The pandemic may also hasten another trend – that of students beginning their study overseas before moving to the UK. According to the British Council/UUKi report, around one in six international undergraduate students come through this route. If this trend continues, strong and sustainable international institutional partnerships will become an even more important route for recruiting high quality students.

A refreshed international education strategy

We know from our research that other countries are increasingly investing in their international activities, and having an international education strategy is extremely valuable for supporting student mobility and global engagement.  The UK’s international education strategy sends a clear signal to partners, collaborators and students that the UK takes international education seriously and welcomes students from around the world.

DfE and DIT are exploring how best to support the education sector to recover from the shock of the pandemic through promoting sustainable recruitment.  The UK’s education sector generates total export revenue of £23.3bn with £14.2bn coming from international HE student recruitment. Therefore, it’s an activity that’s well worth rebuilding, and we’re working closely with the HE sector, government and the UK’s new international education champion, Steve Smith, on this crucial project.

It includes recognising that we must reduce our reliance on Chinese students. It has been a huge benefit to the sector that so many Chinese students have chosen to study in the UK but China’s ambitions to not only increase its capacity to educate its students itself but also to become a higher education hub for its region are already beginning to be realised.

Realising the promise of the graduate route 

Applications from Indian and Nigerian students for study in the UK are increasing rapidly. Changes to the UK’s immigration regulations have attracted more students from these countries who may have traditionally studied in Australia or Canada. The introduction of the new graduate immigration route which will allow for two years of post-study work for all international students who study in the UK, and the new streamlined student route for study visas, have made the UK a more welcoming environment.

India is developing rapidly, and more students have the wherewithal to study overseas, including those from outside the larger cities. Cities like Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Mangalore, Bhopal, and Agra continue to show growing numbers of students interested in studying abroad. Many students also learn English at school, making it far easier for them to study in the UK.

Nigeria’s position as the most populous country in Africa with one of the world’s largest youth populations, make it a significant market for international education. Over 85,000 Nigerians travel abroad to study each year due to a shortage in university places. Scholarships and post-study work options are important drivers for where students decide to study, especially at the postgraduate level. Despite the pandemic, Nigeria performed strongly compared to other major markets in the recent Q3 visa data published by the home office, dropping only two per cent compared to last year.

A new relationship with EU students

In 2018-19, 167,240 students from EU member states were studying in the UK. EU students play a vital role in connecting Britain and Europe with the rest of the world. Changes to fee status, access to loans and new immigration rules, will introduce financial challenges for EU students that may negatively impact numbers in the short- to medium-term.

In the EU region, the British Council works with the UK sector to support student mobility drawing on our insights into student behaviour and concerns. Our “Brexit temperature check” study in March 2020 surveyed 1,125 16-34-year-olds considering UG or PG studies in English-speaking countries. It showed that EU students come to the UK for the exceptional quality of teaching and employability prospects offered by UK higher education institutions, and to immerse themselves in English language and UK culture. They research extensively and prefer information directly from universities, current students and alumni. Their primary concerns are financial, including fees, living costs and health. Geographical proximity and lower fees give the UK an advantage against the USA, Canada and Australia, but competition is growing from within the EU, especially Germany and the Netherlands.

The future (may) be looking brighter

As we move into 2021 UK HE providers still face many challenges dealing with the impact of Covid-19. However, the UK remains an attractive destination for international students, and the world has noticed that the UK remained open for business during an unprecedented situation. The HE sector moved swiftly to provide online and blended learning while remaining committed to teaching quality. This experience has prepared the sector well for a future which could disrupt traditional learning approaches yet further.

Whatever the future holds, the British Council will work with, and support, government and the HE sector to recruit students through the Study UK campaign and by providing support to universities and colleges that want to internationalise across our network. We have also developed our digital capacity rapidly. We will continue to innovate, for example, through our plans for new Education Insight Hubs that will provide analysis and policy insight across our seven regions. Our new alumni programme will also help the HE sector to continue its engagement with international students long after they have departed our shores.

The British Council International Education Virtual Festival is taking place between 18-21 January 2021. The theme is Sustainable Futures for International Education.

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