An empty university lecture theatre
Empty lecture theatres and an adapting HE sector - where next? ©

Photo Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash, used under license and adapted from the original.

May 2020

Like many sectors, UK higher education has been hit hard by the global pandemic. The lockdown in the UK has emptied campuses, impacting on how students access their courses and on the work of researchers and academics across all disciplines. The sector has adapted where possible, for example by moving to online teaching, but it can be a challenge to ensure quality and engagement levels are maintained whilst working in new ways.

The sector is also facing a longer-term challenge beyond the immediate impact of the lockdown. Questions remain about start dates and access for both returning and newly enrolling students, both domestically and from overseas. Students need to know if they will be able to attend physical classes and what the impact will be on accommodation, library services, lab work, examinations and not least the social side of things that is so core to the student experience. 

International student mobility is a crucial component of higher education for many countries, institutions and students, but especially to the UK which annually recruits more international students than anywhere else

International students make a vital contribution to both universities and to the wider UK economy - the total benefit to the UK economy associated with a typical non-EU-domiciled student has been estimated at approximately £102,000 per head. 

Engaging young, talented, intelligent people from around the world with UK HE is a dependable way of boosting the international standing of the UK. We know that world-leading universities and education systems which foster creativity are both factors which drive attractiveness in a country (and these are areas where the UK scores highly when we have surveyed young people in the G20 nations). In addition, people who engage with a UK education are more likely to visit and do business with the UK.

However, with so much uncertainty many prospective international students are reconsidering whether they want or even can come to the UK in the autumn with potentially catastrophic financial implications for the sector. Despite the numerous benefits of welcoming international students to UK courses, the fact is that UK HE institutions often rely heavily on the income from international student fees. Some courses are particularly reliant, for instance over 80 per cent of full-time students on many postgraduate engineering programmes (and business and management courses too) are from outside the UK. 

This makes the results of a series of pulse surveys undertaken by the British Council a matter of particular concern to both the sector but also the businesses that depend upon it. 

Many prospective students are uncertain about their immediate plans for international study – for example, the majority of prospective students from China are unsure of what to do with only a third feeling they were unlikely to cancel their plans. The surveys also offer valuable insight to the UK sector into the main concerns of these students (health and wellbeing; personal safety; finances), and how these vary regionally. 

As we continue to track the views of prospective students and develop our models of HE demand this picture will become clearer.

This understanding can support UK universities with their immediate scenario planning and formulating responses to the unfolding crisis.

Whilst insight for the sector is important, it’s also crucial to continue to connect with those students whose future plans have been turned upside down. In addition to the work of individual institutions, the Study UK campaign (part of the GREAT programme) which promotes the UK as the first choice study destination for international students maintains engagement and clear communication with prospective students, including through specific information relating to COVID-19, as well as videos, MOOCs and other digital activity. 

Study UK is a powerful channel for engaging prospective students and presenting clear messages about the UK HE sector's unique offer. With the introduction of the Graduate Route visas and continued development of the International Education Strategy, this all sends a clear signal to the world that the UK welcomes international talent. 

It is to be expected that there will be at least a short- to medium-term slowdown in international student mobility. Public and private sector support will be necessary to sustain our universities and colleges through this period, if we are to avoid the loss of strategically important science and technology programmes because of what is likely to prove a temporary fall in demand.

However, as institutions move from crisis management, towards strategy development, it will be important for the sector to recognise that COVID-19 will likely accelerate the trend towards transnational education. 

Many UK higher education institutions already offer courses overseas, including in China.

Close to 700,000 students all over the world are currently studying towards a UK university qualification outside the UK, often with the support of the British Council.

That number is likely to rise with more institutions in the UK and globally looking to forge partnerships which are more resilient to threats like COVID-19. 

We will be sharing our latest insights on prospective students and our models of future demand in a series of virtual Going Global sessions in June. Going Global convenes a global community of leaders to shape the future of international HE, so that we can continue to provide opportunities to develop young talent and benefit the UK through a strong HE sector.

This crisis won’t diminish the attraction to students of the UK higher education sector’s high quality, globally relevant learning and internationally recognised qualifications but it does have profound short- and long-term implications for both UK campuses and the wider UK economy. 

Michael Peak, Senior Adviser Education Research, British Council

See also