As a world leader in higher education, the UK sits at the centre of a global network of international faculty, research partners and students.
The UK higher education institutions (HEIs) hosted nearly half a million (485,645) international students in the 2018/2019 academic year.
These students helped to internationalise the UK study experience for the benefit of domestic students.
Their tuition fees and living expenses injected an estimated £14 billion of direct spending into the UK economy.
Over the last decade, nearly 2 million young, talented individuals from every country in the world have studied and lived here and graduated with a UK degree. Even more have studied here for a short part of their course.
These students go on to make changes at home, building businesses, designing policies, leading organisations and even leading their countries – approximately 59 current world leaders studied in the UK.
UK universities, and the support they offer to international students, are a crucial asset for ensuring the UK remains connected to the world.
International student numbers were expected to grow substantially this year with the introduction of the Graduate Route (reformed post-study work visas), which makes the UK’s policy settings highly competitive compared to other major study destinations.
However, COVID-19 has complicated the picture. It has raised serious questions for UK universities and policymakers about how many students will cancel and what can be done to retain them and their long-term connectedness and trust.
Since the end of March 2020, we have used our extensive British Council social media channels to survey over 30,000 prospective international students across the globe, asking them about:
- their application status
- their concerns about studying abroad this year
- their intentions to change plans.
Key East Asian markets
The eight sending markets – mainland China, Hong Kong (SAR), Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam – comprised just over half of all new non-EU international enrolments at UK HEIs (52 per cent) in the 2018/19 academic year (the most recent year covered by official HESA data).
Mainland China, which is by far the largest source of international students in the UK, accounted for 40 per cent of new enrolments in the 2018/2019 academic year.
We are using this intelligence to support the UK sector and, in turn, to support the UK’s international relations and support the UK’s place in the world right now and for generations to come.
Our most recent full survey results were gathered from 19 April to 15 May 2020 and cover eight markets in East Asia, with a total of 15,536 respondents.
Asked how likely they were to delay or cancel their overseas study plans this year, most respondents either leaned towards keeping their plans or were undecided.
Whereas in other years students had been attracted to study elsewhere (perhaps when policy or messaging turned students’ heads away from UK), these sentiments suggest that prospective students are uncertain about international study wherever that may be.
Yet sentiments varied considerably across the eight markets, with notably stronger intentions to delay or cancel in Indonesia and Taiwan. Nearly half of respondents from those locations told us they were at least somewhat likely to scrap their plans for this autumn.
Respondents from mainland China and Thailand showed the lowest intentions to delay or cancel. However, around 40 per cent of respondents in both countries were sitting on the fence, ‘neither likely nor unlikely’ to abandon their plans.
Intentions also varied depending on the level of study, with prospective postgraduate students much more likely to cancel than those entering undergraduate programmes.
While UK universities are highly dependent on postgraduate taught enrolments, a drop at this study level would primarily have a one-year impact. Any decline in undergraduate numbers would weigh on university finances for the full three to four years of the intended course.
There is consistency over time in prospective student intentions, as is evident from our two rounds of survey data from mainland China, the first round being conducted a month earlier.
We saw almost no change in intentions to cancel or delay study plans from the first to the second survey and it seems that the majority of students are still taking a wait and see approach.
With a more nuanced understanding in hand of how sentiments are shaping up by individual market and intended level of study, we were able to estimate the impact of two scenarios for the coming academic year.
Our baseline scenario assumes that only students who told us they are very likely to cancel or have already done so will be lost from the coming intake.
At the opposite end of the scale, our pessimistic scenario assumes that all respondents who are somewhat likely to cancel or are undecided will be lost in addition to the baseline scenario.
What would the most optimistic scenario look like?
Assumption: 13,539 fewer new enrolments at UK HEIs in 2020/2021 from the eight surveyed markets – a decline of 12 per cent compared to the 2018/2019 academic year.
Impact: an approximate decline of £463 million in spending on tuition and living expenses in the UK across the coming academic year.
To translate the impact into pounds sterling, we compiled estimates on student spending on tuition fees and living expenses using HESA non-EU fees, and Department for Education reports on student expenditure from 2015, updating them using the Bank of England’s inflation calculator.
For context, this figure is roughly that of the annual income of a research-intensive university.
In addition to the immediate financial loss to UK universities and communities, a decline in international enrolments will have a longer-term impact with regard to the lost networks and connections for UK students, and the future influence of the UK amongst the next generation of leaders and change makers.
What would the pessimistic scenario look like?
Assumption: 68,267 fewer new enrolments at UK HEIs in 2020/2021 from the eight surveyed markets – a decline of 61 per cent compared to the 2018/2019 academic year.
Impact: an approximate decline of £2.3 billion decline in student spending on tuition fees and living expenses.
For context, that’s more than ten times the average university income.
This could give rise to a severe drop in the number of young people in East Asia who would have built trust and engagement with the UK during and after their studies.
The difference between the two scenarios – around 54,000 students and £1.9 billion in direct expenditure – underlines the importance of the work we have to do over the next few months.
A full picture?
These impact estimates only account for the eight surveyed markets and a little over half of our new non-EU enrolments. It is also worth noting that our estimates likely understate the impact for three reasons:
- we have not included the impact of current students who may discontinue their studies
- we have not accounted for the multi-year impact of undergraduate deferrals and cancellations
- we have likely not captured some of the students who have already decided to cancel, as they may have already disengaged from our social media channels.
Health and safety concerns
Our survey respondents sent clear messages regarding their concerns about studying overseas this year.
In particular, respondents demonstrated high levels of concern around ‘health and wellbeing’ and ‘personal safety’. These concerns were most severe in mainland China, Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The detailed results also indicate that East Asian students are likely to feel more favourably towards countries where mask wearing as a personal health practice is the norm.
Mask wearing in public across East Asia is often the norm. Not wearing a mask in these countries during the pandemic can signify to some, a lack of social conscience.
The newly introduced UK government instructions to wear facemasks on public transport and in hospitals and shops where physical distancing isn’t possible could be a reassurance to those undecided about moving from East Asia to the UK to study.
Stories in print and online media of anti-Chinese or anti-Asian attacks in the UK’s major study destinations were referenced by respondents. There is a real sense of urgency in assuring prospective students that the UK is a safe and welcoming place to pursue their studies.
Course delivery concerns
Survey respondents also emphasised the importance of being able to start face-to-face study this autumn.
Though Chinese respondents showed more flexibility on alternate start arrangements, other respondents showed stronger intentions to defer their study plans until 2021 if the autumn start was off the table.
Online-only starts were particularly unattractive for incoming postgraduate students, who showed a much stronger preference for a delayed January start.
We expect that recent communications from the UK government and institutions that have declared themselves open to receive students in autumn will be welcomed by respondents.
A window of opportunity?
UK Governments and universities take students concerns seriously and are listening to the messages sent by students through the British Council’s surveys or similar.
Universities UK’s Principles and considerations: emerging from lockdown covers a range of priority issues that universities are considering alongside government advice, public health resources, case studies and expertise from the global higher education sector.
Many universities have already implemented a number of COVID-19 support services that current and future international students can access to ensure that students' physical and mental health are prioritised.
StudyUK and the GREAT Britain campaign are going a long way to raise awareness of the UK’s educational offering and to drive consideration and further engagement – a tangible benefit to the UK.
UK universities are preparing to provide in-person teaching this autumn and will also offer in-person social opportunities to students, all in line with public health guidance.
There is still an opportunity to continue to reinforce the message of the safety of the UK, the quality experience of UK HE and the positive associations of this for longer-term career prospects.
Whilst it is difficult this year to predict exactly when this window of opportunity will close, we believe the risk of losing the students as yet undecided about keeping or cancelling their plans will rise sharply over the coming month.
The education sector is a vital element in the UK’s international attractiveness. The experience of studying and living in the UK plays a critical role in shaping positive perceptions of the country.
On the other side of the coin, international students add to the richness and diversity of campus and communities in the UK. They help to internationalise the UK study experience for the benefit of domestic students, as well as bringing economic benefits to the whole of the UK.
Without action to recruit, retain and reassure international students, ambitions for a truly connected, trusted and Global Britain will undoubtedly be affected.
Matt Durnin, Head of Research and Consultancy, East Asia, British Council, with thanks to Michael Peak, Senior Adviser Education Research, British Council and Anna Duenbier, Policy Adviser and Project Manager, British Council