The decline of international students: can the international student pathway help?

Rachel Soundy, higher education partner at law firm Bevan Brittan LLP, looks at how to maintain international student numbers

As UK higher education faces financial strain and continuing public health disruption, international student enrolment remains uncertain. Higher education institutions that understand the concerns of international students and strength test their global recruitment strategies and international student pathways (and react accordingly) will be the ones best placed to thrive.

The Covid-19 pandemic impacted, and will continue to impact, the number of international student enrolments at UK universities. A recent report published by Universities UK International warned that the UK is increasingly vulnerable to a shift in global student mobility towards other established English-speaking destinations, such as Australia and Canada. This trend, when coupled with the accelerated growth of regional student mobility in emerging study destinations such as Malaysia, threatens the UK’s share of the international student market.

Over the past few months, measures to help stem the decline in international student numbers have been much debated. A stronger promotion of the Graduate route visa (which was launched in July 2021) by the UK government was requested by IDP Connect in a recent report. There have also been calls for lower student visa costs and international student loans to enhance the UK’s attractiveness as an English-speaking study destination.

Higher education institutions have also been looking internally to prevent a long-term localised decline in international student numbers.

We have seen a widespread move to strength test global recruitment strategies

We have seen a widespread move to strength test global recruitment strategies, with a focus on analysing the diversity of the international student population as well as enrolment numbers. Institutions have sought to engage at a deeper level with international students to understand their concerns in attending UK universities in an attempt to tackle these, whether this be study and living costs, job opportunities during and post-study or feeling welcome, safe and part of a diverse population.

There has also been a renewed focus on international student pathways across the UK higher education sector. Having worked with higher education institutions and private providers for over a decade to set up, realign and (rarely) to collapse international student pathways (from a legal perspective), I am acutely aware of the cultural, social and financial benefits that international student pathways bring to higher education institutions and their wider communities. Pre-pandemic the international student pathway (in its various forms) was the most successful way of recruiting international students to UK universities.

Whilst the international student pathway model was undoubtedly strained by the global pandemic, the vital role that the pathway plays in international student recruitment has not dimmed. Perhaps inevitably, increasing uncertainty around international student enrolments has triggered a renewed interest amongst higher education intuitions in establishing international student pathways. Over the past 12 months we have seen the University of Birmingham expand its partnership with Kaplan International Pathways and the University of Southampton and Aston University launch pathway partnerships with Cambridge Education Group.

We are also seeing some higher education institutions and international student pathway providers engaging more deeply about what a more agile pathway model could look like and how this model could be utilised to attract international students. Questions are being raised and business models reviewed. Can a more flexible pathway model be developed that could offer a combination of online, blended and distance learning from a mixture of on-campus and regional study hubs? How can the recruitment model be optimised to satisfy the desire for more diversity in the international student population? Is it possible for the pathway model to be utilised by higher education institutions to provide skills support as well as English language programmes? How can the international student pathway be reimagined for a Covid-19 world?

For more on this topic, please join the live webinar The International Student Pathway Reimagined featuring a panel discussion hosted by Anna Britten with Victoria O’Donnell from Arden University, partner Rachel Soundy from law firm Bevan Brittan LLP and Julie Mercer from the Nous Group at 11am on Thursday 2 December 2021.

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