In a crowded market, the decision by the Johnson government to re-instate post-study work rights to international students had revived the UK’s attractiveness and positioned our sector for significant growth.
“There is only a small window of opportunity before students start looking elsewhere”
What a difference a pandemic makes. Like most countries in the world, we are in the throes of coronavirus. The government has stepped up its public health response and is charting an economic path out of Covid-19 in the still new post-Brexit context.
But while we are still seeing interest in the UK as a study destination, and continuing enquiries give us hope that demand remains, we expect enrolments for the September intake to be significantly down across the entire sector.
In order for the international education sector to begin making a recovery, the UK government – like governments in all major destinations countries – need to get three things right.
First, managing the pandemic from a public health perspective, next effectively managing the economy and finally, creating the right policy environment for international education to thrive.
While restrictions and lockdowns have brought the pandemic somewhat under control, questions have been asked about the government’s initial handling of the crisis and in major markets; there is confusion around the UK response and our readiness to welcome international students.
A recent survey of the Navitas global agent network shows that the UK’s reputation as a study destination is suffering as a result.
Only 30% agree that “the way this country’s government has handled the coronavirus has made it a more attractive study destination”. This is compared to 85% for New Zealand, 78% for Australia, and 75%for Canada.
In terms of the economy, the UK is experiencing the same major economic headwinds facing all advanced economies around the world.
There is much work to be done with disappointing GDP growth figures, growing unemployment, and waves of retailers struggling to remain viable.
Notwithstanding these challenges, the Bank of England is a voice of optimism, hopeful that the UK may yet achieve a V-shaped economic recovery. Policy-wise, the UK is ahead of the game.
This could be a defining counterbalance for us, buying the sector headroom while the government redoubles its efforts on the health and economic fronts.
Supportive measures for international students like the International Education Champion and clarity around post-study work rights are exactly the sort of policies that the international education sector needs.
But will they be sufficient given the relative increased attractiveness of Australia, New Zealand and Canada in the eyes of agents, students and parents?
In Australia Navitas has spoken about the paradox of coronavirus for international education – the very measures that have prevented the spread of the virus and made it a very appealing study destination are the same policies that continue to prevent students from arriving in the country.
The challenge there is removing uncertainty around the reopening of borders so that education providers can secure the pipeline of pent up demand. The large numbers of students deferring their plans could dissipate over time. There is only a small window of opportunity before students start looking elsewhere.
The challenge for the UK is almost the reverse. The borders never officially closed, and the government is on the front foot in terms of policy but international students want reassurance that the UK is a safe place to be. They want to know that a return to normal is not too far away, but they are not seeing evidence of this as yet.
The decision by Cambridge University to cancel face-to-face classes until September 2021 is a luxury few others can afford, and while Cambridge students will be sticky — you don’t get into Cambridge and then drop out because you don’t like this decision — other institutions will find it hard to hold onto student interest and intentions if a return to normalcy is delayed to that extent.
“The international education sector should focus on maintaining student stickiness and pent-up demand”
So we need to look ahead to 2021, and that is where the UK may have an advantage over competitors in the Southern Hemisphere. Given its major intake is in September, the UK has a bit more time up its sleeve to get its house in order.
While the government works to get the pandemic under control, the international education sector should focus on maintaining student stickiness and pent-up demand.
Favourable post-study work rights will certainly help, as will continued personal contact with current and prospective students to overcome both social and physical distances.
The potential is there – if the UK can deliver on these key ingredients – to pick up where it left off pre-Covid-19.
This is particularly the case if competitors in the Southern Hemisphere miss the window of opportunity in their major intake in February.
The opportunity is, therefore, ours for the taking.
By Paul Lovegrove, CEO University Partnerships Europe, Navitas