The UK's Place in the World | HE Research Snippet #39

HE Thinking | 23 Mar 2020


Weather report on recruiting international students

The dark clouds of the COVID-19 pandemic are right over us - and most of the rest of the world - dominating our thinking for months, at least.  But we must remember that, as with all crises, the initial sense of fear and, let’s face it sometimes panic, will eventually ease and other issues will come back fore - like recruiting international students to your universities. That’s what this Snippet is about.  So, two apologies.  First, this piece isn't about Coronavirus, and I know that's where everyone's head is at.  But we felt it would be helpful NOT to talk about it for once.  And second, this article relies on a weather analogy and we might push it just slightly too far!

At the end of January, the UK officially left the EU, which was a lightning strike to any certainty for applications from European students. Meanwhile, the raindrops of detail about the new points-based immigration system began to fall, but not all the details. Many of the references to student visas remain vague and open to interpretation by the Home Office, which has a reputation for exercising that interpretation restrictively.

Then, a rumble of thunder: in his first budget as Chancellor, Rishi Sunak offered no changes to tuition fees, leaving us all to assume a continuing freeze for English students, but he did announce a 57% rise (from £300 to £470) in the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS), a compulsory fee for medical costs for international students and staff. This, of course, pushes up the price of study in the UK.

This is breaking in a sector that has already been storm-torn in terms of international reputation since the Brexit referendum, buffeted by the reports of ‘hostile environment’ policies and growing anti-immigration populism. Meanwhile, there’s been a tidal surge of competition from universities elsewhere in Europe, in Australia and, particularly for Chinese students, in their own homeland.

brexit youthquake

Sunlit uplands

However, in the eye of the storm, there might arguably be some calm blue sky, even some of “sunlit uplands” that we were promised.  Before Brexit, some claimed that leaving the EU would have a positive impact on international student recruitment. Not only would EU students still crave a British education – and would now pay full international fees for it – but, as the UK became more globally focused, students from anywhere and everywhere would be attracted in ever larger numbers. 

Also, the historical reputation of UK higher education remains high: British universities continue to dominate rankings alongside the best in the US. And from abroad, the points-based immigration system may look far more welcoming than it does from the perspective of UK citizens who are more used to freedom of movement for those from some countries, but not others. Coupled with a return of the two-year post-study work visa (announced last September), the political climate might appear positively balmy.

student visa

The forecast

Looking beyond Covid-19 which is, of course, the absolute predominant issue and frankly very difficult to look beyond, it is still far too early to tell which way the wind is truly blowing: whether the UK’s place in global higher education is shifting and whether our national education brand is weathering well.

Some early indications look positive. The latest data from the Home Office shows that 285,000 student visas were issued in 2019, a rise of nearly a fifth since the previous year and making study the number one reason for a visa application, outstripping work for the first time.

And it’s worth institutions remembering that they have access to better market research data than most other global markets, which has the potential to offer UK HEIs a real advantage.  Our HE Success Suite products, for example, have International student samples both in Undergraduate Success and Postgraduate Success. As the chart below shows, at PGT level, it’s far more about reputation, league table ranking, links with industry and social life for international students than home students.  Being forearmed with detailed, specific market research can make all the difference when setting an effective strategy for recruiting international students in a competitive global market.

PGT Chart

But beyond market research consumer data, there are some cautionary signals for university marketing strategies. Forty two percent of student visas were issued to Chinese nationals (which had grown by 20%). This shows a singular reliance on one market that might be all too easily rocked by political changes or – as we have seen – an international health crisis.

The next largest national group was from India which had claimed 13% of student visas, a third as many as China, but nonetheless the number had nearly doubled since 2018. After the Brexit referendum, Indian media widely reported British anti-foreign feeling which many believed had harmed applications. The upturn suggests that any effects were temporary only.

India is likely to be a growing market for many UK universities if they can target their approaches effectively. Prime Minister Modi has already made clear that study visas for Indian students would be a condition of a critical post-Brexit UK trade deal with the world’s largest democratic nation. Even if only to gain leverage with Brussels, Johnson’s Government may regard that as a small price to pay.

Bigger than either India or China (but about the same size as both combined) is the contingent from EU states – over 140,000. Since the referendum, EU student numbers coming to the UK have continued a long-term upward trend but with a less steep rise. Of course, funding and visa arrangements hadn’t yet changed and both the Government and universities will have to consider whether to treat EU students differently from other international students when it comes to fees in order to protect that market.

The Government may be sympathetic to the need to continue to draw in EU students both for financial reasons and because the small proportion who remain in the UK after study are often the “brightest and best” that the Government has said it wants to attract, particularly in skills shortage areas like engineering and medicine. However, devising a model that doesn’t look less attractive to EU students that the current freedom of movement will be challenging, so it’s hard to imagine numbers won’t be affected.

A changing climate

The more that UK universities hope to gain from the international student market, the more open they are to the risks of market squalls. Some universities have such a large proportion of international students, that if the perfect storm blows down the tree, they might find themselves without their financial roof.

The competition to attract from a smaller pool might get fierce and it will prove ever more important to know what matters most to international students.

For once, the universities at most risk include some of those that are usually most able to withstand short-term blustery conditions in the marketplace. Meanwhile, the universities that are less reliant on international students may at last be grateful that what looked like lost opportunities might turn out to be reduced exposure.

Could universities actually have to close if they find their international student numbers falling? Hopefully not, but it’s worth remembering that in its last assessment of the financial health of the sector, the Office for Students expressed concern that, although no individual institutions’ projections of growth in student numbers were unreasonable, taken as a whole the aggregation was too optimistic for them all be proved right.

Market Research Tailored for the HE Sector 

How can you improve your international recruitment strategy? First you need to know what drives attraction to your university. That's where our HE Success Suite comes into it's own.

Each tracking product within the suite is tailor-made for the HE sector and designed to empower universities to achieve their attraction and conversion goals. The products deliver unrivalled market competitor knowledge and years of back-data that solves challenges around the entire recruitment cycle.  

Book a no-obligation demo to see it in action or follow the links below to read more. 

Chat to our HE specialists >   Explore the HE Success Suite >   Request a brochure >

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