Coronavirus: how Covid-19 will affect international student recruitment

Universities can bounce back from the dip in international student numbers, says Dr Vicky Lewis

At the beginning of 2020, UK universities were still celebrating the announcement of a new post-study work route which will allow international students to remain in the UK for two years after they graduate.

This made the growth targets within the government’s 2019 International Education Strategy (increasing international enrolments from 460,000 in 2017-18 to 600,000 by 2030) feel achievable.

Then coronavirus started to spread.

Factors affecting international student recruitment

International students make up around 20% of the UK’s total student population.

The impact of coronavirus on enrolments will not just be for September 2020. Any dent in undergraduate and postgraduate research student numbers will last for the duration of their studies. Some current students may not return to their studies in the UK at all.

Many different factors will influence how seriously the international intake is affected at individual institutions – and how long it will take to get back on track with enrolments.

Some factors are beyond an institution’s control. Others are linked to institutional profile and responsiveness.

There is the possibility of a boom year in 2021 or 2022

External factors

The timing of the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK will dictate whether travel restrictions into the country are in place at the start of the new academic year and, even if they are not, whether international students feel safe coming to study here. Some students may postpone their studies, while others seek alternatives elsewhere. In a worst case scenario, international student arrivals in the UK will temporarily be decimated. However, there is also the possibility of a boom year in 2021 (or 2022), with deferred students arriving alongside new applicants.

A weak pound could work in our favour

The extent and timing of any Covid-19 outbreak in a prospective student’s home country will have an impact. Even in countries (eg China) which now seem on the road to recovery, this year’s application round has been affected by the cancellation of English language and other tests. UK Naric – the UK agency for the recognition and comparison of international qualifications and skills – offers a useful summary of school closures and exam arrangements around the world: https://uknaric.org/2020/03/17/charting-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-uk-admissions-and-recruitment/2/.

As we head into a likely global recession, currency and exchange rate fluctuations will affect the affordability of an international education in different destination countries. A weak pound could work in our favour.

Dr Vicky Lewis

Internal factors

Institutions which are agile and flexible will fare best. This includes those with a January start option; those where part of the programme can be taken online; and those with overseas campuses or partner institutions which students can join until it is feasible to return to the UK. Lessons can be learned from the way Australian universities handled the start of their academic year at the peak of the coronavirus crisis in China.

The composition of the international student body at an individual institution will also have an impact. Universities with a high proportion of students from affected countries will suffer more than those with a more even spread. The top ten source countries of new international students in the UK are: China, United States, India, Germany, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Spain, Malaysia and Nigeria. At the time of writing, six of these countries are also in the top ten for Covid-19 cases.

Clear communications, empathy and practical support are all essential

A key factor in how soon an institution is likely to recover is how well it treats its current and prospective international students at this time of crisis. Clear communications, empathy and practical support are all essential. The package offered by the University of Auckland in New Zealand includes an emergency fund, free summer school courses and university housing in summer 2021, free English language study, and 80 Study Buddies to answer questions.

Changes in approach

International student recruitment teams are having to be imaginative when it comes to engaging with international students and stakeholders: working remotely, virtually and through in-country partners.

Coronavirus has speeded up experimentation with alternative recruitment practices that don’t involve long-haul travel

Interestingly, the move to less carbon-intensive approaches to international student recruitment was already high on the sector’s agenda. One positive side-effect of the coronavirus crisis is that it has speeded up experimentation with alternative recruitment practices that don’t involve long-haul travel.

There have been crises in international student recruitment in the past, though never on this scale. The good news is that the impact has always been temporary. Coronavirus will inevitably have a significant effect on international enrolments, but those universities that can weather the financial impact and handle the challenges effectively can expect to bounce back.


Read more: Coronavirus: ‘Universities will be changed forever’, says Sir Anthony Seldon

Coronavirus and Chinese students: UK universities told not to prevaricate