Challenges of student recruitment in the age of COVID-19

More than half of the world’s learners are affected (51%, 890.5 million students) by the impact of COVID-19.

With mass high school and university closures in an increasing number of countries, concerns about the implications for future international student enrolments and ultimately the impact on institutional cash flow are high on university leaders’ agendas.

International student recruiters have navigated the uncertainties caused by the East Asia currency crisis of 1997, the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the economic downturn that followed the global financial crisis of 2007-08.

Universities have been challenged at some point over the past two decades by the introduction of stricter student visas and post-study rules impacting international student enrolments.

While universities are well versed in dealing with the consequences of major global political and economic events, the challenges posed by COVID-19 are of a completely different order and require multifaceted, institutional-wide responses backed by supportive government policies and interventions.

The scale of the challenge faced by UK universities

With the highest proportion of annual new entrants to higher education, the UK is more exposed than other significant international study destinations such as the United States, Germany or Australia.

Data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency for 2018-19 shows that more than half of all international students in the UK were new enrolments (56%, or 249,080 newly enrolled students out of 448,670 international students in total). This poses particular challenges for UK universities.

They will need to consider strategies for managing reductions in new international enrolments as well as ensuring continued progression for current international students.

Reliable communications with prospective and current international students are vital, but universities also need to consider other stakeholders, including students’ sponsors, embassies, recruitment agents and international partners.

Prospective international students

School closures are clearly going to disrupt exam schedules. While the Ministry of Education in China has announced its intention to keep high school and university entrance exams to schedule, other countries, including the UK, US and India, have either postponed or cancelled their exams altogether.

UK NARIC has published a useful summary of school closures and exam arrangements worldwide. English language proficiency tests (TOEFL, IELTS) have already been impacted by testing centre closures and a growing backlog of demand built up, especially in China.

The UK government, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and universities have announced their intention of keeping to the current year’s admission schedule.

International recruiters are going to have to adapt to changes to timetables for school-leaving and university exit qualifications in a wide range of countries. They will need to target their communications to different student groups and work with others to achieve their objectives.

For instance, current international students who want to further their studies in the UK at a higher level are likely to face uncertainties similar to those of domestic students as well as additional pressure from home.

Previous research established that 10% of first degree entrants in England had studied at school or college in the UK. The same research found that 19% of postgraduate entrants in England had already studied in UK higher education. A significant number of these students will be with pathway providers and are likely to have already chosen the next institution for their studies.

Another group is students progressing into the UK from a transnational education (TNE) pathway. This is one of the most diverse student recruitment channels and includes students from:

• Branch campuses;

• Partners delivering UK qualifications overseas;

• Education institutions providing courses and modules recognised as ‘prior learning’;

• Independent or supported online education provision.

Universities with overseas campuses and other forms of TNE have the flexibility to mitigate shocks in the operating environment by adjusting student enrolments across sites and with partners in different geographies.

Equally, they can mobilise education provision through the mobility of their education programmes delivered in partnership with local providers or online. This means students have an opportunity to commence the 2020-21 academic year in their home country and transfer overseas at a later stage.

Around one-third of international undergraduate students in England start their degree in their home country through TNE pathways, including via education agents, who are an extension to universities’ recruitment teams and are often the first point of contact for many prospective students and their parents; and school counsellors in key ‘sending’ schools and colleges.

Embassy closures and visa appointment cancellations are causing growing anxiety among prospective students. Universities need to stay in touch with UK Visas and Immigration and be prepared for delays in processing visa applications.

Universities should be prepared to adapt their normal admissions process and requirements. Some institutions are already providing offers of COVID-19-related scholarships, tuition fee discounts and waivers to prospective students.

Current international students

Most universities have suspended teaching on campus and have switched to online instruction where possible. While such teaching can be deployed for any student audience irrespective of their geographical location, there are particular challenges for students in certain countries.

There may be an issue of whether all staff are experienced in using online education and communicating with students remotely or have the equipment to do so at home.

Even with sound equipment and reliable Wi-Fi in place, online tuition is not a solution for everyone. Lab-based research students needing access to specialist equipment may be forced to halt their work, which raises issues with their funding if they are on scholarships or relying on the income from tutorials, which are now cancelled.

Recent reports that Asian students have become victims of racist attacks have caused worry among their parents. Delivering UK degrees in the students’ home gives them the opportunity to complete their programmes at the university’s branch campus or local partner.

In addition to students, universities need to be communicating with students’ sponsors, employers and embassies and should also consider messages which address students’ families, both directly and indirectly, alumni and also the communities in which they are located.

While most effort focuses on students’ safety and enabling them to continue with their studies, the wellbeing of students and staff and continued support should remain a priority. Universities will be acutely aware that not all students will be able to return home during this period and that some operations, such as residences, catering and security, will have to continue, albeit on reduced rotas.

Student demand will rebound

COVID-19 presents the most significant challenge to international student mobility on a global scale since the Second World War. Student demand will rebound, as we have seen in the past.

“Coronavirus, ironically enough illustrates exactly why we need internationalisation,” writes innovation expert Robin Matross Helms from the American Council on Education.

“We need students who understand global phenomena, can see xenophobic and culture-bound reactions for what they are and are prepared to work with colleagues around the world to address global crises in the short term and contribute to long-term solutions through research and the advancement of knowledge.”

Dr Janet Ilieva is director and founder of Education Insight, an international higher education research consultancy, and a specialist on transnational education. Vincenzo Raimo is chief relationship officer at Unilodgers and adjunct professor of global higher education at the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, China.