Too early to tell impact of Covid-19 on international students, UUKi director says

Vivienne Stern said the crisis in recruitment should remind government to fund university research more sustainably

It is too early to predict the impact of Covid-19 on the recruitment of international students, the director of Universities UK International (UUKi) has said, as she called on the government to help the sector remain globally competitive.

Vivienne Stern, director of UUKi, told University Business that surveys of international students show “an indication, but no more than that” of how recruitment might be affected by the coronavirus crisis.

“I think what the data I’ve seen so far shows is that a lot of students are waiting to see what happens – but the demand is still there. Universities haven’t come out and said how they’re going to cope with possible disruption in the autumn. My guess is lots of applicants are going to be hanging on to see what happens next.”

Ms Stern said very few institutions have publicly announced contingency plans in case international students cannot resume face-to-face learning because of Covid-19, but she advised universities to “be agile” and put forward “a plan A, a plan B and a plan C” to maintain student confidence.

Two British Council surveys have revealed that international students have different opinions on the likely impact Covid-19 will have on their study plans.

Around 40% of Chinese students polled said they were undecided about whether to cancel their studies in the UK this autumn, with only 12% reporting they were still most likely to take up their place as planned. In contrast, around four in 10 students in India and Pakistan reported that they were “not likely” to change their study plans at this stage.

A message from the vice-chancellor of University of Manchester to staff last week revealed the risk the Covid-19 crisis poses to university finances.

Dame Nancy Rothwell warned that if enrolment fell by 80% for international students and 20% for domestic/EU students, the University of Manchester would lose more than £270m in revenue. She added that the university was modelling for revenue to drop by between 15% and 25%.

Delay the new points-based visa system

The UUKi director agreed there “was room for international recruitment to improve” in the coming months – but cautioned that more government help was needed, particularly on the issue of visas, if students were to have confidence.

“I think the government’s been quite helpful. The Home Office has been coming forward with fixes to the problems we’ve identified,” she said. “But my biggest concern is that the visa system isn’t working at the moment. That’s important for students who might be reserving final judgments about whether to come to the UK or not in the autumn.

“My view is that you need to give people a sense the UK is open and that it’s going to find a way to deliver education either in the normal way or with a contingency measure and if the visa system is not available, that is a real problem.”

The government should also drop its ambition to introduce a new points-based visa system next year, Ms Stern added.

“I don’t think they’ve got the infrastructure in place to achieve that [points-based visa system]. I think that the last thing we need is to push away prospective European students with additional barriers at this time. So, although we understand how politically unpalatable it might be, I’d call for them to delay that for a year because we don’t need another problem.

“We’re saying quite clearly that the government needs to give us a hand in Europe. A third of international students are European. We were already worried about European enrolments before this crisis hit because we were expecting a new fee regime and a new visa regime to be introduced.”

Ms Stern urged Boris Johnson’s government to make the UK higher education sector more competitive than those around the world, particularly after the Canadian government announced “well received” policies on international student visas that might tempt swaying overseas students.

On speculation some universities in Australia might offer international students golden hellos in the wake of Covid-19, she said: “[Australian] institutional behaviour does give me a little bit of cause for concern because I think there’s some aggressive recruitment behaviour at the moment, which I think could have an impact on the way that universities in the UK respond.”

‘Government should fund research in a more sustainable way’

UUK has outlined the impact increased costs and lost revenue could have on universities in a newly published paper that called on the government to announce a multi-billion-pound package for the sector.

The fact that UK universities together collected £6.9 billion from international student tuition last year – which represented around 17% of the sector’s total revenue – has led some to suggest that UK higher education providers (HEPs) are too dependent on overseas recruitment.

It is no surprise Ms Stern, who speaks for the sector’s global interests, rejects this assessment of the situation.

“When people talk about the impact on university finances, what they point out is that it is research expenditure that will be hit hardest, because international fee income cross-subsidises research income to the tune of about 17%.

The lesson we should draw from this episode is not that we should be less dependent on international fees, it is that government should fund research in a more sustainable way
– Vivienne Stern, UUKi

“The lesson we should draw from this episode is not that we should be less dependent on international fees, it is that government should fund research in a more sustainable way. I think that it means we need to revisit questions like the balance in the dual research support system and the balance between QR and grant income.

“International fees shouldn’t be an excuse for the government to under-invest in research.”

As the UK continues to negotiate its future relationship with the European Union, Ms Stern said universities must realise that any decision to participate in schemes like the Erasmus programme and Horizon “will be seen through the lens of the state of the nation’s finances”.

Ms Stern said she remained hopeful that government would see universities in a different light after the crisis has receded.

While universities and government have largely agreed on international higher education policies, Ms Stern said the same cannot be said for their relationship in the domestic sphere.

“If you look at the domestic side, it seems like for a long time the business of government has been criticising universities for things that they perceived to be a sort of deficit –whether it’s things like freedom of expression on campus, or the offer-making system, it was all about the kind of things that universities weren’t getting right.

“One of the things I hope comes after this crisis is a stronger appreciation of the degree to which universities are part of the essential national infrastructure.”

Students must not feel ‘short-changed’ by distance learning

Universities are grappling with the practicalities of the next academic year, including the potential that distance learning might need to be offered for a prolonged period for international students

Coventry University, which was the fourth largest recruiter of international students last year, has recently introduced a Learning Experience Platform, which it says goes one step further than a Virtual Learning Environment in putting conversations and communication at the centre of teaching and learning.

The university said the announcement makes it the first of its kind globally to commit to an “active, collaborative, mobile-first” learning platform. Coventry has scaled up activities and expects 40,000 students across its five regional UK campuses to use the platform from September 2020.

Last week, Durham University was forced to drop plans to radically overhaul its curriculum after opposition from some member of its senate. The university had planned to offer courses online after an internal audit revealed that a third of undergraduate programmes had no online offering.

I think the other side of it is making sure that we do the best we can to deliver online distance learning, so that international students who might find that they are taking some portion of their degree online because of Covid-19 don’t feel short-changed
– Vivienne Stern, UUKi

“If we want to persuade international students who are on the fence to plump to study [with a UK university next year], we need to prove to them that the students who are doing it now finding it satisfactory.

“I think the other side of it is making sure that we do the best we can to deliver online distance learning, so that international students who might find that they are taking some portion of their degree online because of Covid-19 don’t feel short-changed.

“I know universities have been doing extraordinary things in the last few weeks to get their online distance learning into shape and I would expect any university to be thinking very hard about how they can build on that experience, to make sure that in the autumn they’re offering something on a bigger scale,” Ms Stern said.

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