Will it be a happy new year for higher education?

Louise Nicol looks at the signals on international recruitment, and argues for a coordinated strategy on January entry.

The picture on international recruitment is confusing – and there is cause to swing from optimism to pessimism almost on a daily basis.

The British Council is anticipating £463million black hole due to the loss of international fee income. Vice chancellors are warning of a fall in international students of between 30% and 50%. International deferrals are on the up.

Yet UCAS statistics indicate the UK non-EU student acceptances are up 2% and up 14% for Chinese students. And with flights opening between India and UK, plus quarantine restrictions with Malaysia relaxed, two important markets look as if they are open for business with the UK higher education sector.

Whilst international students may have accepted offers, they may not as yet have paid deposits. British Council data shows that Chinese students are less likely to take up their overseas places than some other countries e.g. India and Pakistan. We hear of delays at UK Visas & Immigration, which means students willing and able to get to the UK for their studies are falling at the last hurdle.

The possibility of an international abyss requires a solution – and we think that should mean a widespread offer of winter start dates.

Winter is coming

Universities like Coventry University are well ahead of the curve here. Not only are they offering this year’s intake maximum flexibility in how they study (online, off-line and blended) they have extensive experience admitting international students in January.

If we are to bounce back from disaster, it will be important for a broader range of institutions, especially those that have traditionally not offered winter starts, to begin to do so. This may be particularly important for the China market on which so many of our prestigious universities rely upon for the majority of their non-EU population.

So why is January a good option?

First, it will allow high tariff institutions to honour places to domestic students impacted by the A level results debacle. Following the report from the Education Policy Institute on education inequality, it will give HEIs a chance to play an active role in the government’s “levelling up agenda” by admitting home students in January. Accepting both domestic and international students in January will also allow for greater integration of students.

Offering international students reluctant to travel this summer an additional option for UK study could be seriously attractive. QS research indicates this could suit up over half of international applicants.

It would also provide the opportunity to gain market share before Australia & New Zealand open borders in the spring. We are already seeing increased activity from our antipodean colleagues and if the UK does not maximise the opportunity to recruit students whilst borders in Australia & New Zealand remain closed, Asian students in particular are very likely to take up places closer to home in the spring.

Finally it would prevent a huge bottle neck in terms of 2021 entry to UK Universities. Due to the number of deferrals by domestic students this year (both enforced due to capacity issues and voluntary as a number of students will still have to shield or be unwilling and/or unable to take up their places this year due to the pandemic.) This will present future issues for Higher Education Institutions and many of the same issues related to this year’s A-level results scandal will raise their ugly head primarily impacting disadvantaged students due to increased competition for places.

Another headache?

Now clearly the prospect of winter starts could be one more headache for the sector after:

  • Closing campuses in March 2020
  • Moving teaching and learning online because of Covid-19
  • Clearing and the backlash following the A level results debacle
  • Opening campus in autumn during a global pandemic
  • Implementing blended learning
  • Complying with social distancing with significant capacity issues due to more domestic student acceptances this autumn.

Any one of these issues would have been a significant issue for the sector but together amount to an apocalyptic workload and stress upon each university and its staff. Adding a January start would be tough – but the alternatives, where 21 institutions are at financial risk, the majority would suffer significant financial losses and many would face reduction in research capability because of fewer international students, means it may be the least worst option.

To maximise the UK’s international market share and increase enrolments before Australasian campuses reopen in the spring, it will be necessary to not only outline to international students that we are “open for business” but also maximise the StudyUK campaign.

We’ll need to provide reassurance the UK is a safe place to study, inform international students of the new graduate route for post-study work following their studies, and deliver robust employability and international outcomes metrics to evidence the ROI of a UK degree to international applicants unsure of the risks and rewards of studying overseas.

UK PLC has been doing a great job on the first two points, with comprehensive StudyUK social media campaign and appearances from the Universities Minister Michelle Donelan. But it has failed to deliver on the final point – despite Gavin Williamson writing to the Office for Students a year ago asking them to “make available data on International Graduate Outcomes as it does for that of domestic students.”

All data points to employability and graduate outcomes being the most important factor in international students’ choices, and the data exists for the UK to deliver this to applicants if we could just invest in the data, collate it and get it to them.

With these three weapons in our armoury, the UK has a good chance of not only converting acceptances to enrolments this autumn but also making up the international student shortfall this winter. Let us hope the sector “grabs the bull by the horns” and does just that.

One response to “Will it be a happy new year for higher education?

  1. Thank you Louise, a good summary of the challenges and the opportunities for UK HE. A January 2021 start appears the most pragmatic response to this dynamic situation and an appealing option for international students currently unable or unwilling to travel. We hope to welcome many international (and Home) students to Sheffield Hallam for our UG and PGT courses that start in January.

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