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What do prospective international students want from their study destinations in a global pandemic?

  • 30 October 2020
  • By Paul Raybould

This blog was contributed by Paul Raybould, Marketing Director at QS Quacquarelli Symonds.

The UK is a global leader in higher education – it is one of our greatest exports. The UK is home to 6 of the top 20 universities in the world according to our QS world university rankings published this year, which considers factors such as academic reputation and teacher to student ratios. It is not surprising therefore that the appetite to study here for international students remains strong, even if the means to do so are currently challenged. This year UCAS has reported a 9 per cent increase in the number of undergraduate students from outside the UK and the EU accepted onto courses starting this autumn, rising to a new record total of 44,300. After a summer of uncertainty and concern about potential drops in numbers of international students and what that could subsequently mean for institutions’ finances, this is positive news.

Recent QS research, which spoke to over 1,000 prospective international students looking to study in the UK next year showed that they are also hopeful that they will still be able to do so, with 84 per cent saying they expect to be able to begin their studies in 2021. This appetite and optimism paints a hopeful picture for the future of the UK’s status as a global study destination.

However, the journey from prospective to enrolled students is a long one, especially at the moment. Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic have created a challenging context for the sector, as restrictions on teaching and changes to fee statuses create an ever shifting backdrop for higher education to navigate. If universities want to ensure that international students continue to come to the UK to study, it is vital they listen to what international students want, hear their concerns and understand their priorities.

Firstly, we know that face-to-face teaching is a strong draw for both domestic and international students alike. Students value this delivery as part of their overall student experience, however in the current context it is hard to deliver. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson has been clear about his advice to continue face-to-face teaching where possible, while unions and the opposition are pushing for more remote learning to take place. It seems for prospective international students, the preference is very much for face-to-face teaching. Our research revealed that nearly half of prospective international students will only feel comfortable travelling overseas to study when campuses are open and face-to-face teaching has resumed.

This creates a tricky balance, with more and more institutions across the country already reverting to remote learning after a few short weeks back on campus due to COVID-19 outbreaks, it remains unclear when face-to-face teaching will be returning to previous levels. In fact, prospective international students already know this, with 30 per cent of those recently surveyed saying they expect life to return to ‘normal’ in one to two years. Universities must therefore endeavour to ensure that remote teaching is of a high quality, engaging and interactive – as close as possible to the face-to-face teaching that international students are looking for.

Additionally, a vaccine seems high on prospective students’ priorities. 43 per cent of prospective students surveyed in recent QS research said they would travel overseas to study once a vaccine is developed and available. This represents a large percentage of prospective international students. While we do not know how long it will be before a vaccine is available, with some suggesting the earliest we can expect one is mid-2021, it is vital for the UK higher education sector to ensure that once one is available, international students are able to access it.

For some prospective international students, simply being able to get to their study destination is top of their priorities. 30 per cent of prospective international students have said government restrictions on arriving in their study countries impacted their abilities to start their studies in 2020. New Zealand and Australia, both popular study destinations, continue to have travel restrictions in place blocking entry for many international students. If restrictions remain in place then vaccines, face-to-face teaching and extra support will be irrelevant as ultimately without the ability to travel, prospective international students simply do not have the means to get to their destinations. For some, reducing this inhibitor is enough to encourage them to travel, 25 per cent of those surveyed said they would be comfortable travelling to their destination country as soon as they were legally allowed to.

Crucially, over three-quarters of prospective international students believe that universities have been effective at supporting international students during the outbreak of COVID-19. It is this support which must continue. Universities cannot bring back face-to-face teaching to previous levels, but they can ensure that blended approaches are as interactive and engaging as possible. Universities cannot find a vaccine overnight, but they can work so that when a vaccine is available, international students can access it. Universities cannot stop the restrictions preventing international students from getting to the UK, but they can make sure students feel informed and supported.

While we know that appetite to study in the UK remains strong, engaging with, listening to and understanding the priorities of prospective international students is the key to ensuring that the UK retains its position as a global study destination during this challenging and uncertain time.

Throughout 2020, QS has been continuously reporting on the findings from its ongoing coronavirus student survey. Since its launch in mid-February, this survey has received over 75,000 responses from prospective international students looking to study overseas. From 4 September, this survey has also been opened to both newly enrolled and existing international students in the higher education sector. Respondents can enter the survey either by being invited as part of our database of prospective international students, or they may enter the survey via our website, The survey has received responses from prospective students in 197 countries and territories and includes those looking to study a range of subjects, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

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