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Uncertainty persists: What does the latest British Council survey tell us about international students in 2020/21?

  • 19 October 2020
  • By Matt Durnin

This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Matt Durnin, who is Global Head of Insights & Consultancy within the International Education Services at the British Council.

Over the past six months, the British Council has run surveys to understand how COVID-19 impacts on international student enrolments in the UK.

Our most recent survey collected student responses from 6 August to 12 September 2020 and was designed to be a final survey push that would give us clarity as to roughly how many students would cancel or delay their plans this academic year.

And the survey says… 

But we still don’t know, nor do many students. 

While writing this post, I happened across my original sketch of the survey project and how I thought it would unfold: a gradual shift from uncertainty to certainty as our prospective students watched the pandemic develop and weighed up risks and alternatives. Sure, fluctuating travel restrictions and more flexible university deadlines would delay decisions, but by the end of summer the overwhelming majority of students would have made up their minds, right? Not quite, say our most recent survey data. 

Although the start of the autumn term was just around the corner when we launched the survey, Chinese respondents showed a high level of uncertainty, with 28% saying that they were ‘neither likely nor unlikely’ to cancel or delay their overseas study plans. That’s lower than the 40% to 42% we saw in our previous two surveys, but still high for so late in the cycle. Moreover, if you combine the undecideds with those who are at least ‘somewhat likely’ to cancel, we can see the contours of a worst-case scenario in which around 55% could still decide to delay or cancel.

This may appear to be at odds with some good news you saw recently: UCAS reported in September that non-EU acceptances were up by 9% year on year. (China was up by a whopping 24%) So why do our survey numbers seem to tell a different story?

  1. First, the UCAS figures refer to acceptances not enrolments. Many universities have also adopted flexible refund policies this year and we might see an unprecedented surge in late cancellations. And even at universities where refunds are less flexible, a lost deposit may not provide much disincentive to cancel this year. A large portion of international students are beginning their studies remotely, and the uncertainty picked up by our survey suggests that that we can’t be certain of these enrolments until they arrive on UK campuses. 
  2. Secondly, the UCAS figures only cover a portion of prospective undergraduates. Postgraduates make up just over half of new UK international enrolments each year and students at this level have appeared more likely to delay or cancel in our surveys. In China, 14% of postgraduate respondents said they had already abandoned their study plans for this academic year, compared to just 7% at the undergraduate level.

There are, nonetheless, silver linings to this cloud. Viewed from a different angle, the persistent uncertainty in China is a positive indication that students were looking for a way to keep their plans. Even with the vast uncertainties and concerns, most Chinese students seemed to be keeping the option to study in the UK open. That’s a good indication for the longer-term recovery in student mobility.

Student plans also look more certain in at least one other major UK student recruitment market. Around 60% of our respondents in India said they are ‘not at all likely’ to cancel or delay their study plans, up from 43% when we surveyed respondents in June. The return of post-study work visas and some disenchantment with the US, the UK’s closest competitor, likely gave UK universities a boost. Nevertheless, 21% of our respondents in India said they were very likely to cancel or delay or had already done so. Moreover, the continued economic downturn will weigh on student decision-making over the next year and a weak job market may take the shine off post-study work.

What is driving the uncertainty?

Across our surveys, we also asked respondents how concerned they were about several key issues when contemplating their study plans. In the midst of a pandemic, health and wellbeing unsurprisingly topped the list, though with significant differences across the various countries we polled. In China, where the virus appears to be all but eliminated, 81% of respondents said that they are ‘very concerned’ about health and wellbeing when evaluating their plans to study overseas. Aside from Vietnam, health concerns were somewhat softer in other major markets, but nonetheless a sizeable portion of respondents ticked the highest level of concern in almost every market we polled. 

There are other issues weighing on the minds of students too. Financial stresses and the availability of affordable flights are presenting barriers to keeping overseas study plans. In many markets, financial concerns could worsen over the coming year as the economic aftershocks of the pandemic reverberate. In any case, this is more likely to be an issue for upcoming years than for this intake.

The availability of affordable flights is also a near-term concern. With flight services slashed around the world – the International Air Transport Association forecasts that global airline passenger traffic will fall by 56% in 2020 – the logistics of travelling to the UK are complicated and expensive for many students. Reasonably priced tickets are somewhat easier to find if connecting through major travel hubs, but many students are wary of transiting through airports in countries with high numbers of infections. Flight schedules and fares look better for November, but shortages and price volatility may continue into 2021.

So when will we know?

It seems likely that a significant number of students – particularly those in East Asian countries where the coronavirus is at bay – are not going to make a final decision about their plans until the core concerns around health soften. I can imagine only two scenarios here:

  • A gradual decline in concerns as the current wave of infections in the UK subsides and improved treatments make severe outcomes increasingly rare. If this happens it would take time though, and it seems unlikely that either of these changes could come quickly enough to move the needle on perceptions before the end of 2020.
  • Development of an effective and trusted vaccine. Recent status reports of the various vaccines in trials show some promising developments, but most estimates put the timeline for widespread distribution well into next year.

Under either scenario a significant portion of students are likely to continue to delay travel to the UK and may still choose to withdraw their enrolments. This means that universities might not have a clear picture of how many of the late-deciders will actually take up a delayed January start until after the lunar new year in mid-February. At a macro level, we won’t have a clear indication of what international enrolments look like for the sector as a whole until the Home Office publishes visa data for the first quarter of 2021, which usually comes in late May. 

I am hopeful about the recovery of student mobility and our universities’ ability to guide students through the current storm. But we need to be clear-headed in our assessment of the challenges we are facing. The disruptions to student mobility are not as temporary as we may have assumed early in the crisis, and many of the core impediments to overseas study could persist for months or even years. Adapting to and thriving in this environment will require international offices to adopt more savvy digital approaches and increased reliance on in-country assistance and representation. The ‘old normal’ of international higher education is not dead and our research indicates strong interest from students in the future. But it’s time to embrace the fact that the journey back is long, winding and punctuated with uncertainty.

1 comment

  1. Denis Blight says:

    The answer to uncertainty might lie in a new flexible product that enables prospective international students to commence studying their home country in a UK (or other provider country) course and then, when the time is right, to transition to study in the UK (or the other provider country). This will require the development of a new curriculum (or product) that is devisable into component parts and transferable across disciplines within and beyond individual institutions or even provider countries.

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