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Flexible starts, new test rules: UK HEIs address financial risks of Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic is threatening international enrolment numbers at UK higher education institutions for 2020, which could lead to huge financial losses for institutions, industry leaders have been warned.

UK institutions are pushing for flexible start dates for international students to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on recruitment. Photo: Needpix

"I worry about their future because I think there are going to be mass redundancies"

While some indicate that universities are seeking to mitigate the impact by focusing on pre-sessional English provisions, concerns surrounding visa applications and widespread student anxiety remains.

Chief executive of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis, has called for government support at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic threatens a “major financial hit” which would put a lot more universities in a “tough position”.

“We are closer to a university going bust than we have been at any point in living memory”

“You have got a top-end risk of £7 billion of income, which would be well over 20% of university income next year,” he said, adding that most international students are currently making decisions about where they will be studying.

“We are closer to a university going bust than we have been at any point in living memory,” added Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Speaking with The PIE News, founder of university specialists The University Guys and podcast presenter, David Hawkins, said that among the fear and uncertainty, it is “really difficult to talk about the sector as a whole”.

“Everybody’s concerns are going to be different,” he said. “If an institution recruits mostly from its local area, then they’re probably going to be okay.

“If it has 25% of its student body from overseas and mostly from China, then they’re probably not going to be okay, and every variation in between.”

Other sources suggested the Russell Group universities relying on high numbers of students from China could be at risk.

“[Some Russell Group institutions], their postgrad provision – we are talking 15,000-20,000 international students per year – what are they going to do if restrictions stay in play?” one source told The PIE.

“I worry about their future because I think there are going to be mass redundancies.”

Some institutions have already noted a reduction in applications from China this year, with some down between 30-40% for the 2020 intake.

“I’d estimate that we’ll be around 40% down in China, but will stay relatively consistent across all other markets,” one non-Russell Group university told The PIE.

“Overall, that would put us around 25% down this year. It is likely though that we’ll push a lot of students towards a January intake.”

And student anxiety is adding pressure to worries about how international destinations are perceived by prospective students, with one recent survey revealing 86% of 9,000 Chinese students studying overseas wish to return home.

But it’s not just students from China who are being impacted by the uncertainty.

“We just don’t know what the situation is going to be [for] so many different factors: whether will kids be able to come, when will they be able to come – it’s going to be so individual to each country,” said Hawkins at The University Guys.

Brian McNamara, International Recruitment Manager (Asia) at the University of Brighton, said the university is “putting in place a wide range of mitigations” for assessment.

“So far this has included flexibility around start dates, online delivery of pre-sessionals and accepting a broader range of English language assessments but we have a range of additional measures coming in the pipeline,” McNamara indicated.

Others suggested that institutions may bring in multiple intakes throughout the year, including potentially introducing undergraduate courses starting in January.

The University of Bristol has worked to recognise new methods of assessment said the head of International Student Recruitment, Charlie Pybus, such as adding the Duolingo test to its list for 2020’s entry.

“Clearly there are significant barriers for applicants this year…from lack of English testing availability to inability to apply for visas coupled with the anxiety that the situation is causing for students,” he explained.

Bristol has developed an online pre-sessional course to be offered alongside on-campus options, as well as a suite of opportunities for students to engage with the university virtually over the coming months, Pybus added.

“This work will be ongoing as the situation develops across key recruitment markets working closely with a range of stakeholders to understand student concerns and issues, and act to address them.”

Despite the ongoing pandemic, the UK remains a popular prospective study abroad destination, with a new QS report revealing that over 85% of 11,000 prospective international students originally intending to study at a UK university were still open to applying.

“There are significant barriers…from lack of English testing availability to inability to apply for visas”

In response to the survey, Eva Crossan Jory, NUS vice president (Welfare) said institutions need to provide clear communication to all international student applicants and flexibility around start dates, teaching provision and accommodation.

“We would urge the government to demonstrate flexibility in adapting to the difficulties some international students will now face in gaining Tier 4 visas for study and to do all they can to help them come to the UK for the start of the next academic year,” she said.

The reliance on international students “paying over the odds”, demonstrated that the sector’s marketisation is unsustainable and inequitable, she added.

“If more than half the expected intake of international students chose to defer entry or study elsewhere the financial impact on the higher education sector would be grave.”

Additional reporting by Kerrie Kennedy

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3 Responses to Flexible starts, new test rules: UK HEIs address financial risks of Covid-19

  1. Would there be any kind of support for international students who plans to enroll from Nigeria this year owing to the economic redundancies Covid 19 may have caused?


    One of the many things that gets affected for the international students during this pandemic situation would be the inability to take the English language tests such as IELTS. In some cases, certain students might hold an unconditional offer but their existing IELTS score card could be nearing expiry date and they could be unable to take the exam again due to unavailability of exam centres. This could really increase the level of anxiety.

    In the event this pandemic situation eases, in such rare cases, the UK embassies, provided they start functioning, can extend the validity of the IELTS score card for another 6 months. This might seem a little out of the box but, considering the time frame (which would be the Nick of time) to apply for the visa and prepare other things for travel, this step would really ease the pressure off the students as they have to prepare for the studies amidst the uncertainty. And this could also help the UK government’s education sector during this time of huge financial crisis.

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