Speaking at the Universal College of Learning webinar ‘Covid-19: What does this mean for International Education Providers?’, experts said that while many institutions have responded to the immediate issues with mitigation measures – such as online learning, financial support through loans, and deferred or altered study periods – 200 million students globally remain unable to access their higher education.
“If you’re recruiting for 2021 it’s not advisable to take your foot off the pedal”
Addressing the immediate need is a significant challenge in itself, participants were told. However, it’s not the only one for providers, with prospective students already shying away from their future international education plans.
Chris Strodes, Market Research and Data manager at QS said their research showed two-thirds of prospective students reported Covid-19 has affected their plans to study internationally.
“At the beginning of April, 61% of students said their plans have definitely been affected, while another 30% said they’re unsure what this pandemic will mean for their international study plans.”
He said of the affected students, 63% said they will defer for a year then continue as planned, 11% will study elsewhere, 10% will cancel their plans altogether, and 17% are still to decide based on factors such as travel restrictions, and outcomes of language testing.
Strodes said it is vital institutions do not neglect their pipeline of future international students and recruiting for 2021 should be happening now.
“Our data shows the average enrolment journey is 10 months from first contact to enrolment, with an average three to five inbound enquiries [made from the prospective student] and 15 to 30 outbound [to the student].
“If you’re recruiting for 2021 it’s not advisable to take your foot off the pedal and wait and see what happens because it’s not going to be as simple as turning the tap back on in October or November and getting those recruits in for semester one 2021,” he noted.
Strodes said there is also the added challenge of not being able to rely on face-to-face events like recruitment fairs and open days.
“Where possible there needs to be a pivoting of these events into digital events in order to replicate the traditional journey as closely as possible.”
Institutions also need to understand market shifts: for example, Strodes explained, QS data shows that overall enquiries are slightly down for the first quarter but inbound communication has increased – so fewer people showing interest, but they’re asking more questions, requiring a higher level of service.
Providers should also be examining where enquirers are coming from and comparing this data to last year’s to see if it has changed, Strodes counselled, as well as what courses are gaining or losing interest.
“What everyone should be doing is taking stock of their data and using that to personalise their communications and the ways they’re reaching out.
“There’s going to be a slightly smaller pool of international students to rely on, however, the demand is still going to be the same from institutions which means there’s going to be more competition. So, how do you compete amongst more competition? You provide more personalised services.”
“How do you compete amongst more competition? You provide more personalised services”
He said over the coming months there’s going to be an expectation to do more with less – so now is the time focus on what gets the best results to maintain a strong pipeline of international students for 2021 and beyond.
Economist and international education specialist, Keri Ramirez of Studymove, said recovery planning should also be on the radar of international education providers, listing three principles to be guided by.
Constant forecasting, he said, is something all organisations need to be doing on a quarterly – and in some cases, monthly – basis, to aid in the development of a range of scenarios and contingency plans.
The second principle, Ramirez explained, is flexibility and the ability to adapt.
“We really need to be flexible in the way we’re operating. By identifying our limitations we can start to see just how flexible we are, and what can and cannot be done.”
Ramirez said while some changes aren’t feasible, it’s worth examining things such as entry requirements, online learning delivery and changes to the academic calendar. “At least an assessment of that will really help in the plan for recovery.”
The third principle, Ramirez said, is certainty, but acknowledged that this will be a challenge given the current high level of uncertainty.
“We need to provide students, parents and education agents with as much certainty as possible. I think it is important just to say, ‘look if you’re not able to start in February, we’re going to have this option for you, or we’re going to have a clear refund policy for you’.
“All this additional information is going to be very, very well received and is really going to help us move forward,” he noted.
Going a step further, International Education administrator, Francisco Marmolejo, said international education providers can’t just go back to the way things were, and it is time to consider how to operate in the “new normal”.
He said the world is facing a significant economic recession on the heels of the Covid-19 crisis and the sector needs to change in anticipation.
“We need to challenge many of the assumptions we have. Do we need the traditional way to measure the ability and competencies of students? Do we need to think that face-to-face learning process should continue being the norm? Do we need to consider that all the academic content that we include in our academic programs still are valid and needed?”
Marmolejo said all these questions, and ideas such as micro-campuses and “zero semesters” must be considered, using a participatory approach to include a range of stakeholders including teachers and education agents.
“This will require more important decision making – based on evidence. Many times we base our decision on anecdotes and I think it is time to base more decisions using data,” he said.
“There is no doubt that this unchartered territory for all of us is going to be both challenging, but at the same time fascinating.”