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How to recruit international students in 2020? Communicate, communicate, communicate

  • 6 July 2020
  • By Nick Hillman

The author, Nick Hillman, thanks the multiple sources who provided information for this article, all of whom work closely with international students.

In an increasingly competitive global higher education market, current and prospective international students are making difficult decisions about where to study, not just for next year, but potentially for three to four years, or even longer.

And, as the decision-making process for international students can be a lengthy one, decisions are being made now for future academic years, not just 2020/21. Potential international students are facing extreme uncertainty and need reassurance and support like never before. 

The recent updated guidance on the UK Visas and Immigration website makes it possible for international students who are in the UK to renew their visas if they are unable to travel to their home countries. This overdue change is undoubtedly good news. 

Moreover, the recent letter of welcome to international students around the world from the education ministers throughout the UK will have provided further reassurance and help boost confidence. And further changes to the post-study work offer will give us a more competitive edge in the global market.

Yet, even as UCAS is sounding cautiously optimistic about the increase in prospective students who have accepted offers to start on a degree course this autumn, the figures for international students are worrying. The number of applicants from outside the EU who have opted to defer their study at UK universities this year has risen by 21% and the number of EU applicants holding a firm offer to start in September has decreased by 6%. 

The pandemic could set the Government’s targets on international students back many years and allow competitor nations to steal a march on the UK by attracting an ever greater proportion of cross-border students.

As we look into 2021, with its additional challenges of Brexit and new immigration rules, it is critical that an overarching review of the visa process remains a priority and our visa regime is understandable and efficient, and that we provide a seamless and welcome transition to living and studying in the UK.

And, as the specific case study of China below makes clear, proactive and prompt communications are vital so that students can make their complex and expensive decisions about where to study as easily as possible.

Current barriers for Chinese students

1. Language testing

Most UK universities still ask for IELTS (International English Language Testing System) results as part of their entry requirements. A few are now accepting other assessments (like Duolingo or PTE), but it seems not all are yet doing so. Yet, since February 2020, the IELTS centres have been closed in China, making it impossible for Chinese students to take the test. Three centres in the country will re-open on the 6th July (Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou) and another nine a few days later. But none of the IELTS centres in Beijing is planning to open as Beijing is still under lockdown. 

2. Visas

All the visa centres were closed for months in China. In the past few weeks, just four have been open – Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou – although the rest are expected to open again imminently. Students need a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) letter, their IELTS results and the visa application form to book a face-to-face appointment in a visa centre, where they will have their picture and fingerprints taken. Students also need to submit evidence that they have a certain sum of money before they apply for their visa. Once an application is submitted it generally only takes up to 15 days to be processed but it can take as long as one month during peak summer months. So, as the visa centres have been closed in many cities in China and those that have been open have only processed a limited number of applications each day, most students have not been able to make progress with their applications. 

3. Flights

There are a very limited number of flights operating between China and the UK, making it very hard for Chinese students to make travel arrangements. China airlines resumed their Shanghai-London route recently, but prices are high and tickets are hard to find. Students are concerned they won’t be able to find a flight to come to the UK on time for September. 

4. Tackling Covid-19 in the UK

Virologists have been talking about the probability of a second wave of Coronavirus hitting Europe this winter, making parents anxious to send their only child so far away under these circumstances. In China, parents have an important weight in the decision-making process and they are following the evolution of Covid-19 cases in the UK and looking at the measures the UK Government is taking. Many Chinese people were concerned by the original approach taken by the UK and Chinese students have also been victim of racist abuse in the UK, which was broadly discussed in Chinese media.

The UK has recently emerged as the preferred option for Chinese students in terms of study destination: there has been rising tension between the US and China, Canada and China and Australia and China. However, the UK’s stand on Hong Kong may change things.

Communication is the key and needs to be done via the right channels. It is particularly important for the universities to keep all the Chinese education agents updated on any changes (for example, on entry requirements and start dates), so that the agents can publish the information in Chinese on WeChat, Weibo and other popular media in China. The less generic and the more specific the information is (for example, on specific courses or accommodation preferences) the better, as students are looking for personalised content.

Finally, the notion of value for money is more important than ever. Many Chinese students and their families don’t mind paying high tuition fees, just so long as they feel they are getting good value for money. But not all international students are convinced online learning will offer the same benefits in terms of cultural experiences and networking opportunities, which may prove as particular challenge in 2020/21.

On Thursday, 9 July 2020, HEPI will be publishing a collection of essays by leading academics and policymakers on UK/China relations and higher education.


  1. Anne Marie Morris says:

    Hello Nick

    Challenging times for all of us.

    I’m Indian, my visa (Tier 2 ICT Dependant) expires in November and my start date is 28 September (MA in International Journalism for Digital Media, The University of Salford).

    It is impossible to travel, get my visa and return for my course.
    There is no clarification from the Home Office about cases like mine. I hope that changes that I can look forward to university in September.

    Thank you

    Anne Marie Morris

  2. Chris says:

    I am European and took my masters degree back in the nineties from the University of Southampton. It was the best Educational and living experience I had . I decided back then to send my children – when I had one – to study in England. Every year or two I used to come in England for vacations Since 1980 , at first with my parents , then alone , then with my girlfriend who later on became my wife and the 10 last years with the company of my three children too. Two of them were planning as IB students to come study , work and possibly live in England . They are excellent students . My daughter is going to become a doctor and my son is aiming at the economic field. We have also repeatedly visited many English Universities. And then BREXIT happened and you decided to take The British Isles and move them closer to The USA. With the fees you intend to apply for Europeans and with no loans any more, my dream and the dreams of my children have been severely damaged. It is not moral to impose abruptly such a burden to people who considered you as compatriots Europeans. I wish you good luck . My children will find the way . Only I am responsible for being a postgraduate student in Southampton University back in the distant and obsolete 1990. Goodbye and good luck

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