By Matt Durnin, International Education Services, British Council

01 May 2020 - 13:46

Curved library stacks
'While there's a lot we can't control right now, we need to be as proactive as possible in addressing student concerns.' Photo ©

Free-Photos used under licence and adapted from the original.

This is the second instalment in a series of surveys designed to help the UK education sector respond to the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic. Matt Durnin, Global Head of Insights and Consultancy at the British Council, breaks down the results. 

Do students from India and Pakistan plan to study in the UK this year?

When we looked at perceptions of Chinese students who had planned to study abroad this year, we found that a large portion of respondents were unsure if they would keep or cancel their plans.

Now we turn our attention to South Asia, with survey results from India and Pakistan. As of the 2018-19 academic year, India ranked as the third largest source of international enrolments in UK universities, while Pakistan ranked 20th.

While they sent a smaller number of students to the UK than China, both countries stand out because of the potential for growth of outbound study. The number of UK-bound students from both countries fell significantly after the tightening of UK study visa regulations. Particularly after the removal of the post-study work visa category.

But the decline ended in 2015, and growth in UK study visa issuance has grown again. The rebound has been sharp in India, where visa issuance soared by over 200 percent, from 2015 to 2019. We also expected that the return of UK post-study work visas offered through the graduate route would significantly boost applications for both markets.

Google search trends from India show a surge in interest related to UK study starting last year, after the announcement of the graduate group. Events since January, however, have changed many of our assumptions about this academic year.

How is Covid-19 affecting the decisions of students who had planned to study abroad?

And, how do those sentiments compare to the trends we saw in China?

To find out, we distributed our survey on 31 March and collected responses until 17 April. We received 1,493 valid responses across the two countries. 

Those results showed that many are at an earlier stage in the student journey than our sample group in the China survey. In India, only 39 per cent of respondents had applied to study overseas, while 28 per cent had done so in Pakistan. The earlier China survey told us that 71 per cent of respondants had already applied. 

But this pattern fits with our experience working with universities. Some will have already received the large majority of their applications from these markets. Other universities, particularly many from outside the Russell group, receive a large proportion of their total applications from South Asia in May and June.

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Are students from India and Pakistan likely to cancel their study plans?

When we asked respondents how likely they were to cancel or delay their overseas study plans, around 40 per cent from both countries told us they are not at all likely to do so. By comparison, only 12 per cent of Chinese students reacted with the same degree of certainty. A much smaller percentage of Indian and Pakistani respondents seem to be sitting on the fence about their plans.

Yet, 29 per cent of Indian respondents and 35 per cent of Pakistani respondents told us that they're at least somewhat likely to cancel their plans, or that they have already done so.

There are many things about Covid-19 that those of us working in higher education cannot control. But, we need to understand the concerns of students. Then, we can address what we are able to.

How do health and wellbeing concerns affect decisions about studying abroad?

As in our China survey, we asked respondents how concerned they were about five main issues when considering their overseas study plans. 

Indian and Pakistani respondents showed strong concerns around health and well-being and personal safety, but to a lesser degree than our Chinese respondents. 

Respondents from Pakistan and India also showed more intense worries about financial pressures. This is something to watch closely over the next month. As the economic impact of the pandemic intensifies in both countries, we expect a rise in pressure to defer study offers.

Which countries are most attractive as study destinations?

Finally, we asked all respondents about which of the major English-speaking study destinations is the most attractive. The UK and 'none of the above' were popular choices of respondents from all countries. Australia and Canada were popular choices of our respondents in Pakistan. 

Notably, very few respondents saw the United States as most attractive. If this sentiment holds, the UK could see a boost in late applications.

What will happen next?

It's too soon to say how students will alter their plans over the coming months. But, we can already identify some risks if these patterns persist.

If student mobility from South Asia holds up much better than that from China, complex challenges will emerge for some institutions. The UK enrolments from all three countries are growing, but each to the benefit of a different set of universities.

If we break down the growth in new UK enrolments from China over the last three years of data, we can see that Russell Group universities have been the primary beneficiaries of the growth trend. Meanwhile, non-Russell group institutions' enrolments of Indian students have grown much faster.

A large decline in Chinese outbound study, and a slighter decline from major South Asian markets might favour non-Russell group institutions.

But there's another complicating factor: visa compliance.

Aside from sending a large number of students, China presents almost no visa risk to study sponsors. The UK Home Office publishes data on grant rates for study visas. These figures don't give us a full picture of visa compliance risks, but they give us a rough idea of which markets tend to pose challenges for keeping total visa rejections under ten per cent. Over ten per cent means a license for recruiting international students could be suspended.

While India's aggregate visa grant rate is not low, we know from experience that some universities have found it challenging from a compliance perspective, and the challenge in Pakistan is more obvious in the data.

The large number of Chinese students dilutes visa compliance risks across universities' portfolios. If Chinese students make up a smaller proportion of applicants this year, it would expose some universities to compliance risks, limiting their ability to compensate with increased recruitment and other markets.

It's hard for us to say how widespread this could be, but it shows that the emerging risks to UK student recruitment this year are multi-dimensional and rapidly evolving.

How should higher education prepare?

In summary, the number of Indian and Pakistani respondents to our survey who are firmly intent on keeping their study plans this year is encouraging. But there is a proportion of students who are at least somewhat likely to delay or cancel. 

The global situation is rapidly changing and it's too soon to say how students will respond. This will become clear over the next two months. In the meantime, we'll continue to track student perceptions.

While there's a lot we can't control right now, we need to be as proactive as possible in addressing student concerns. The concerns that Indian and Pakistani students raised are not substantially different from those that Chinese students raised in our earlier survey. However, financial worries appear more acute and are likely to intensify over the coming weeks.

This means that some institutions will be forced to make tough decisions about which is more preferable: deferrals or discounting through scholarships and bursaries.

And finally, the risk to our universities are not limited to the financial impact of weaker international student recruitment this year. An increasingly complex set of issues will have to be managed, and decisions about them made quickly.

We'll help you navigate these challenges as smoothly as possible by providing intelligence about how student sentiments are changing. 

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