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International recruitment staff know about the challenges of student recruitment during difficult times

  • 18 March 2020
  • By Vincenzo Raimo and Janet Ilieva

This blog was kindly contributed by Vincenzo Raimo, Chief Relationship Officer at Unilodgers and Adjunct Professor of Global Higher Education at the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology and Dr Janet Ilieva, Director and Founder of Education Insight.

There is little certainty about what the impact of Covid-19 on our universities may be. One of the few certainties though, whether high school examination results in different countries are delayed or not, is that there will be an impact on international student mobility – both full degree (so-called diploma) mobility as well as on exchange and study abroad (credit) mobility. The latter has already been impacted with students returning home and universities banning further outward mobility for the foreseeable future. But both forms of mobility will be further impacted next year as students and their parents decide to minimise risk and delay overseas study during a period of uncertainty.

While the scale of the current situation is, as we are constantly reminded, unprecedented, university international recruitment staff know about the challenges of student recruitment during difficult times. Among the challenges faced by recruitment staff have been the South East Asian economic downturn of the late 1990s, the SARS epidemic in 2003, the aftermath of 9/11, and the immigration challenges in each of the main English-speaking destinations at some point over the past 20 years. All of these and other challenges have had an impact on international student enrolments but in all the cases the impact was for a limited period followed by a rebound and continued growth.

But what is likely to happen this year?

Of course, much will depend on the spread of the virus and the impact that has on our societies and on our educational systems. Despite the long closure of schools and universities in China, the Ministry of Education has announced that university entrance exams will continue as planned. But that will not help all of those students who have missed English language classes and are unprepared for English language (IELTS) tests that they had planned to take later in the year. Even if China manages to make up for lost time, it is almost certain that there will be delays in student assessments in other countries. Italy, currently in lock down and where schools are unlikely to open before Easter, makes up a little over 2 per cent of the UK’s annual intake of new international (non-domestic) students. Things start to get more serious if there is an impact in India which currently sends around 7 per cent of all the new international students to the UK each year. And then, of course, what about the UK where the virus is predicted to be at its peak just as the Scottish Highers and A-level examination season is about to kick off?

My advice to universities which have approached me for lessons from when I led Nottingham University’s international recruitment team during the SARS crisis is not to waste time dusting off 17-year old plans. Universities today have many more tools and channels available to them than during SARS and are better equipped to manage student recruitment during difficult times. There are many more in-country offices today than was the case in 2003. In India alone there are estimated to be between 150 and 200 recruitment ‘offices’ of overseas universities. Agent channels have grown and have become more sophisticated. Those agent relationships are even more important during difficult recruitment periods. Agents should be an extension to university’s recruitment team and especially important for those institutions which do not have in-country offices. Good agents should be a valuable, real time source of intelligence but I wonder how many universities have included agents in their scenario planning and Covid-19 response groups? I suspect very few, if any. And, of course, web and other communication tools make it much easier to stay in touch and conduct business at a distance than was the case in 2003.

One of the developments over the past 20 or so years which could really come into its own today is Transnational Education (TNE). While universities with overseas campuses and other forms of TNE have the additional complications of managing the implications of Covid-19 in multiple locations, they might also have the option to better protect themselves from the consequences of student shortfalls in one location by increasing numbers elsewhere. While China seems to be slowly getting back to some form of normality, the situation in the UK is, we are told, some weeks off peak impact. Students in China who would rather start their degree programmes in 2020 than delay for a year could start their first year at a branch campus before moving to the UK a year later when the situation is back to normal. And UK-based Chinese students could spend a period in China in 2020/21 rather than remain in Britain. We know already that the parents of some Chinese students at UK universities with campuses and sites in China are putting pressure on their children to “return to China where it is safer” and complete programmes at the university’s China base.

What else might we expect to see on the student recruitment front over the next few months?

  • There is no doubt that those universities which can will maximise home recruitment in the expectation that international student numbers will be down.
  • Whatever happens to start dates for the new academic year, international student recruitment will continue to the last possible moment in the hope that prospective students (and their parents!) will be reassured that the situation is safe and that they can travel to the UK this year. And January, at least in 2021, will become a more mainstream start date across the sector.
  • Universities will become even more flexible in how they assess students’ suitability for admission. For those students who are not as prepared as they might otherwise have been, good universities will provide more in-sessional support to ensure that students remain on course and do not drop out later on.
  • We have already started to see some Covid-19 related scholarships and discounts to encourage students not to delay. There will be many more incentives over the coming weeks as universities assess the impact of potential student income shortfalls. From a student point of view this is going to be a good year for scholarships!
  • There will be a partial recovery in international student intakes in 2021. It will only be partial as universities rely heavily on pathway providers to fill undergraduate places with students progressing from Foundation Programmes, but those flows will not be back to normal until 2022.

If you would like to read more of HEPI’s output on Covid-19 please see Monday’s blog on PhD students and postgraduates and Tuesday’s blog on what a university hall closure might mean for care leavers and estranged students.


  1. To whom it may concern

    Hello from Florence, Italy. Until a few weeks ago my wife (she is from NY, USA) and I have run NECA (, a study abroad program in Florence for international students, but they all went back home because of the covid19. For 1-2 years we risk to no longer have students because they usually enroll 1-2 years in advance. We had to close the school and now we can only work online. I am searching for interesting collaborations, to share tips, online jobs, online part time jobs. I am operative and full of energy to start again after this tragedy of the covid19.

    We hope to hear from you soon.

    Best regards,

    Dr. Ing. Francesco Convertini
    NECA Director

  2. albert wright says:

    Interesting article.

    Could be that Transnational Education , TNE, has a bright future.

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