Can the UK regain lost ground in global recruitment?

As universities face up to the challenges of reopening their campuses in the autumn, with quarantine arrangements for international students starting to be seriously discussed by international higher education experts, now may be a strange time to consider whether British higher education can regain ground lost in attracting students from key markets around the world over the past decade.

But that was the focus of the first breakout session of the online International Higher Education Forum, or IHEF 2020, organised by Universities UK International (UUKi) on Monday 20 April, for which University World News is a media partner.

Before the coronavirus crisis dominated almost every waking hour, UUKi Director Vivienne Stern and her team were working with Dr Janet Ilieva, director and founder of Education Insight, on a research project to seize the new opportunities presented by the UK’s new international higher education strategy and the introduction of a more liberal post-study work environment to enable global graduates to stay and work in the UK for up to two years instead of just six months (which became policy in 2012).

The strategy has the grand ambition of recruiting 600,000 international students by 2030 – an ambitious goal as the Higher Education Statistics Agency put the number of international students pursuing their degree in the UK at 485,645 in 2018-19 – a figure that has plateaued in recent years.

The new UK international higher education target now looks even more daunting with international higher education experts such as Professor Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, predicting it could take five years before global student mobility recovers from the world recession expected to follow the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased health and safety fears of parents about their children jetting off to foreign lands for their higher education.

Nevertheless, Stern and Ilieva have pressed on with their project to revitalise UK international student recruitment by identifying target markets best placed to regain the ground lost since 2012 to universities in Australia, Canada and to new rivals like Malaysia – while also looking for the most promising hot spots for greater collaboration around the world.

Slump in market share

Their webinar first examined rather startling statistics showing how the pace of growth for international student recruitment had slumped for the UK – and France – between 2012 and 2017. Between 2010 and 2012, the UK had been second only to Canada for the rate of growth in international enrolments.

“In absolute terms, the UK’s growth between 2010 and 2017 was comparable to that of Poland – about 46,000,” said Ilieva.

While Canada almost doubled its international students and other major study destinations, such as Germany, Australia, the United States and Russia, quickened their pace of international higher education expansion, the UK lost market share in 17 out of the world top 21 countries for international student mobility.

The biggest losses were in Nigeria – down over 30% between 2010 and 2017, according to UNESCO data – and in South Asia, most notably in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

New study destinations

Australia gained most at the UK’s expense in South Asia, but Malaysia has become a very attractive study destination for mobile students from Nigeria and Bangladesh, said Ilieva.

Other new popular study destinations growing fast include Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The UK did manage some market gains between 2010 and 2017, but these were limited to East Asia, most notably Hong Kong, Indonesia and Malaysia. And despite their overwhelming dominance in pure numbers, the UK lost about 1% in the market share of international students from China.

Potential for growth

Ilieva suggested dividing potential markets for physical international mobility into those where students prefer closer to home and those where students have been prepared to travel out of their region to study in the past.

While Asia is the largest sending region for mobile students, OECD data for 2017 shows that 90% of mobility to Japan and South Korea, for instance, came from regional neighbours. Australia and New Zealand also relied heavily on Asian students, with 86% and 78% respectively of their international students coming from Asia.

The figure for the UK was just 53%, said the OECD. However, that hides the UK’s reliance on just one country – China.

Just 10 years ago China and India accounted for around 23% each of non-European Union full-time postgraduate taught entrants in the UK. Last year, the Chinese number soared to 47%, while the percentage from India was 11%.

Europe could offer strong potential for growing mobile student numbers, despite Brexit and uncertainty about how much EU students would be charged for tuition fees once the transition period for the UK leaving the European Union has ended on 1 January 2021.

EU countries show strong regional mobility, with 83% of their globally mobile students choosing to study in another European country, said Ilieva, and the UK is already an attractive study destination for European students, notably from Italy and Germany.

More tuition fees on the way

Ilieva predicts that despite initial internal opposition, many countries may be forced to introduce higher tuition fees to help pay for rebuilding after the COVID-19 economic turmoil, including in a range of European countries where higher education is currently free for international students.

“This was the case in the UK where tuition fees were trebled in the aftermath of the global financial crisis,” said Ilieva.

This could lead to UK higher education not being significantly more expensive than other countries for international students, said Ilieva, who told University World News: “With the IMF [International Monetary Fund] predicting the worst recession since the great depression, I expect significant strain on public funding, which will likely lead to reduced scholarships and grants for international students and significant reductions in public spending on higher education.

“As such, we are likely to see the removal of government subsidies for international students – it usually starts with international students – and potentially some fees for home students too.

“It could take five years for any tuition fees to be introduced for international students and perhaps 10 years before fees for home students in some countries.

“I don’t think the tuition fee levels will be as high as in the UK and the higher education sector in many countries is likely to resist such a move initially, but things will adjust slowly.”

Ilieva told University World News that this could help UK universities recover, or even increase, their share of mobile European and international students post-Brexit and post-COVID because the price differential is likely to be less severe.

Quarantining incoming students?

But before the business of competing for international students willing to take flights to study abroad, universities in the UK and its key competitors are going to have to reassure those students that it is safe to do so.

Whether this means that international arrivals will need to be quarantined before they can take up physical study places at universities is only starting to be seriously discussed in international higher education circles, Ilieva told University World News.

But with international higher education experts in countries like Canada already considering alternatives to starting courses for international students online, it seems a possibility.

Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates in Toronto, Canada, has already suggested a route out of the coronavirus crisis campus lockdown, with “online specific courses instead of the DIY-remote teaching stuff we did last month” and high-quality student services available online – in the international students’ own language if possible.

Usher wrote in his blog: “It continues with guarantees to let students in as soon as they are able to travel – absolutely do not flunk anyone out for poor marks during the online period. Then organise and pay for their quarantine once travel is possible (and use the quarantine time to do some more on-boarding) and do a lot more than usual to help them find housing once they get here.”

Ilieva said: “Whether the UK will decide to quarantine all arrivals to the UK before campuses can reopen will be a matter for the government, but I think the country’s approach towards COVID-19 and its attitude to students’ safety will become so important as we emerge from this crisis.

“Parents in China often have only one child and their safety is of the highest importance. Safety and health have to be the key message and not individual university marketing efforts. Word of mouth and stories from current students will be the most powerful factor in influencing future demand.

“Some international students have had bad experiences in a number of countries since the outbreak of COVID-19 and this will impact on future enrolments,” she warned.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for European universities and specialist higher education media.