Survey data from a number of sources paints a bleak picture – the majority of international students indicate they are considering deferral or else want a discount if they do have to start by learning online.
Challenges with completing English language tests in time loom, as do the ability to process student visas quickly. So what can universities practically do in order to recruit and retain as many international students as possible for the upcoming academic year?
“If a university chooses to pursue online to keep students do they discount?”
At EY-Parthenon, the leading global strategy consulting firm to the education sector, we have had dozens of conversations over the past few months with universities, pathway providers, discovery businesses and agents. And have seen three practical strategies universities are considering.
The first thing we are seeing in the market is that students may be more willing to make a decision when they have some certainty around what their autumn semester might look like.
The rolling poll that QS has been running over the past two months indicates that there is the potential of substantial deferrals for new international students. However, the same population strongly indicates a willingness to start a course online if they know they will eventually matriculate to the physical campus.
Universities that are able to take decisions now to provide certainty to students on at least initial mode of learning may be able to shore up some recruitment and help students not to wait until the last minute to make a decision. Starting online may not be an issue for students – particularly if their alternatives are a gap year at home or trying to find employment (which may be challenging).
Then there is the question of discounts – if a university chooses to pursue online to keep students do they discount? Data – for both domestic students whom EY-Parthenon surveyed and international students through QS – strongly suggests that students will expect a discount if they have to learn online for part of their course.
Universities have argued that online experience is the same quality as in person. But we know that one of the reasons international students choose to study abroad is the immersive experience – particularly if it is done in English.
A lesson could be learned from the schools’ sector: schools that initially didn’t discount and had to deal with disgruntled parents have had to discount up to 30%+ while schools that were transparent with parents, offering discounts or credits, have seen discount levels closer to 10%. There will likely be some sort of compromise to manage student expectations.
Second, we are seeing universities consider multiple intakes or mid-year cohorts and then summer sessions in 2021 to help with any delays in 2020. This will have operational impact, likely require some hybrid learning, but may help to smooth any challenges universities will face keep utilisation of lecture halls low but students engaged. Planning now for next year and giving flexibility to students could help to bring some students in who otherwise would delay until 2021/22 or even beyond.
“There will likely be some sort of compromise to manage student expectations”
Finally, a more radical solution we see universities consider is broadening their TNE partnerships – if you cannot get international students to a European campus in September or October this year, can you find a local partner to start cohorts and start to provide some of the in-person experience students expect with a clear path to matriculation to the home campus the next semester or Autumn 2021?
We know conversations with Chinese partner universities or branch campuses abroad are already in full swing. Our experience suggests that increasingly a 1+3 or a 2+2 type program is attractive to international students. It gives parents certainty that their child will actually start their university degree.
Ultimately the message we are getting from students is that clarity around the options for how they might pursue their studies would help them to make a decision. Universities that have a communications plan to keep in touch with admitted students, providing them with clear options, are starting to see some results.
Anna Grotberg is an Associate Partner at EY-Parthenon, the leading global strategy consultancy to the education sector. EY-Parthenon conducts more than 300 projects globally in the education sector each year. Anna leads work across the post-secondary education market – directly with universities in the UK and across Europe but also with investors backing higher education platforms across Europe having worked on nearly every major higher education deal in Europe in the past five years.