International student recruitment trends in global HE – preparing for a post-pandemic world

15 February 2021
Posted by Manoj Shetty

Throughout the pandemic, and specifically in the last quarter of 2020, we conducted a broad range of global and local market research, insight and data analysis initiatives. They were designed to better understand students’ and parents’ main concerns about studying overseas and how COVID-19 has impacted study choices, along with their perceptions of online learning in the immediate and longer-term future. 

The full findings and all data sources can be found in our White Paper, but for a quick summary read on...

Student preferences for online or on-campus

Of the students we surveyed, 43% would still prefer a traditional, face-to-face study experience, on a university campus abroad, while 31% prefer online learning and 26% prefer blended learning. In the current climate, undergraduates prefer on-campus, whereas postgraduates lead towards online, remote learning.

There are also variations by country, with Vietnam expressing the strongest preference for face-to-face, and students from South Korea more in favour of online.

In general, students are concerned about compromising on quality and prefer online learning to be positioned as a temporary solution. If a university can say that online learning will only be in place for 3–6 months before face-to-face teaching resumes, students will accept it more readily as a route to the on-campus study experience they are looking for.

Overseas learning experiences during the pandemic

Despite the pandemic restricting international mobility, many students started the new academic year on-campus and online at their chosen university. We conducted a global survey with over 3000 of those students and found that they were generally positive about their learning experiences so far.

However, there is lingering doubt around the online learning being delivered in lieu of face-to-face teaching. Through our focus groups in China, we discovered students were most concerned about the quality of online, remote learning they’re experiencing.

One said: “ Many of my classmates just sign in on the streaming classes and don’t do their assignments. We may fall behind.”

Infographic: On-campus experience

Students are remaking their plans

All reports suggest that the general appetite for international study has not abated; the pandemic has merely caused plans to shift. At the end of 2020, around the globe students were delaying or deferring their plans, with the goal of starting their programme in 2021.

Through our focus groups in China, we were able to dig a bit deeper and found that, as one may expect, the pandemic is the biggest factor for students changing their study abroad plans. Parents are the key decision maker and are particularly anxious about health and safety, despite the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

One student explained: “I actually booked my accommodation and planned to leave for the UK in January, but my mother is worried if the pandemic gets worse. They are most worried about the safety and health.”

Get ready for a surge in demand

The good news is that high demand for international study continues. From the various research we reviewed, we found that students are driven more by the ‘pull’ factors or the appeal of key destinations, rather than ‘push’ factors at home that prompt them to seek opportunities overseas.

This, along with students deferring rather than cancelling their plans, is a strong indicator that we will see an increase in demand in 2021.

For example, in our own survey we found that 75% of prospective students intended to start their overseas study programme in 2021. Of our applicants who rejected a Study Group offer in H2 2020, 1 in 5 are planning to reapply in near future. 

In addition, a report from UKVI stated that only 5% of students are considering cancelling their study abroad plans to study in their home country instead.

Destination preferences are changing

There are many factors impacting on a student’s choice of study destination. For some major study destinations, a shift in market share is anticipated in the coming years, with Australia, New Zealand and Canada predicted to increase their shares.

We’re here to help

Everyone has risen to the challenge presented by the pandemic to support current and potential international students to achieve their education goals. From recruiters running virtual study-abroad fairs to governments providing additional funding and countries re-opening to students, we’re all working hard to ensure that as many students as possible can access the education they deserve.

With vaccines being rolled out around the world, a brighter, post-pandemic future is emerging.

For 25 years we have been supporting international students to achieve their education goals, working with the world’s top universities to broaden access to high-quality, global Higher Education opportunities. With our vast experience, we can help you deal with the expected increase in demand for study overseas in 2021: get in touch to find out how.

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