Covid will downsize universities’ overseas partnerships

A rationalisation of transnational delivery was already in the offing, but post-pandemic austerity will hasten it, say Matt Durnin and Jazreel Goh 

December 13, 2020
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Good news on Covid vaccines has finally provided hope that the international student number may bounce back sooner rather than later. But the journey to something close to “normal” will be a tough one and the final destination may bear little resemblance to the student recruitment market that existed before the pandemic.

The most immediate change in international student recruitment will be an increase in the frequency and pace of interaction with prospective students. Covid has created a whole new maze of obstacles and uncertainties for students thinking of studying overseas, leading to enquiries from students and agents about everything from campus safety protocol to travel and visa logistics. Until the pandemic is well and truly over, universities will need to be very responsive to these enquiries, measuring their response times in minutes rather than hours or days. To that end, setting up teams on the ground in key markets is starting to happen, and it will probably remain the norm beyond the pandemic.

Tighter budgets and continued travel disruptions may also push international offices to rely more on commercial partners and in-country representation as they battle to recover international enrolments. But while outsourcing may be necessary, it comes at a cost. Universities may have little choice but to accept higher acquisition costs – and lower profit margins – per student.

Universities will also need to accept that the next few years will be characterised by uncertainty and volatility. Gone are the days of steady growth in international student numbers that we have taken for granted over the past three decades. Even the price of air travel – which is likely to increase in the long term as the aviation industry adapts to lower volumes of business travel – may be enough to deter price-sensitive students.

Those in the UK who hoped that the revived post-study work pathway would drive a boom in international student demand may be disappointed in the aftermath of the pandemic. This important and hard-won policy change may soften the blow from Covid-19, but the appeal of post-study work will be diminished by a tough job market in what will likely be a prolonged financial downturn. Moreover, the experience of Australia suggests that the nature and quality of the post-study work placements that graduates can expect has become extremely important for applicants’ decision-making. Universities will need to make a compelling case that their graduates are in high demand from industry and graduate recruiters.

The UK has so far weathered the storm better than its major competitors for international students. But this relative success follows a series of own goals by those competitors. Strong recruitment normally seen in the US has been hampered by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of its outgoing president, Australia has suffered from stringent Covid-related travel restrictions and students have struggled to navigate Canada’s visa process. However, all these advantages for the UK are transitory and could rapidly shift in the opposite direction as policy responses and geopolitics change.

Some observers have predicted that investments in transnational education by Western universities might be about to come into their own as Asian students become more wary about travelling so far from home in the wake of the pandemic – especially to countries that were less successful than their own in containing Covid-19. However, we disagree. Once the pandemic has been suppressed, all signs point to continued demand from the major student recruitment markets, particularly China and India, which will remain the pillars of the international education industry.

Branch campuses and joint degree programmes delivered in partnership with local institutions have proved costly to set up and maintain, while the pay-offs – in terms of both income and student mobility to the home campus – have often proved slighter than expected. A rationalisation of overseas delivery was already in the offing, but financial austerity in the aftermath of the crisis will hasten the process. Investment in overseas partnerships is not dead, but it will look very different after the pandemic, with a shift in focus to regulatory environments that are more conducive to cost recovery.

This is not the only difficult decision that institutions will have to make about priorities and spending in the wake of the pandemic. Relying on a pre-pandemic recruitment model is, however, not an option. The world has changed, and successful international recruiters will change with it.

Matt Durnin is global head of insights and consultancy at the British Council. Jazreel Goh is director of the Malaysia British Council.

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