UK universities should not relax too soon over international admissions

In Thailand, even school leavers with UK connections are starting to look elsewhere, says sixth-form head Sadie Hollins

February 13, 2021
Smiling young Asian student
Source: iStock
Thai school leavers may look to studying in Thailand, elsewhere in Asia or even Holland rather than in the UK

For those of us helping people apply to university, this is proving to be a somewhat unusual year.

As head of sixth form at a British international school in Thailand, I am responsible for guiding pupils as they research and choose courses and then navigate university applications processes. A significant number of them dream of going to university in the UK.

Despite growing concerns about Covid-19, the severity of the pandemic in the UK and the impact it is having on students, the admissions service Ucas is still expecting a record number of applications to UK universities this year.

From an international perspective, my experience suggests that this is fairly plausible. The majority of my school’s pupils have one or two Thai parents. They have often spent their whole lives in Thailand, but many hold British or European passports and lots remain excited about applying to their dream course in the UK.

Still, 2020 feels a bit different. Previously, we have had very few pupils choosing to stay in Thailand after graduating from school. However, at the same time as submitting their UK applications, many pupils this year are considering the growing number of international undergraduate programmes available in Thailand and other Asian countries, which seem to be gaining in prestige. And many pupils have commented that they will be staying in Thailand unless the situation drastically improves in the UK, as they are not keen to learn online while paying such high international fees. Others have already made the decision to defer their UK places for a year and have stated this on their applications.

I have also noticed that our European and Thai/European pupils and their families have been extremely disheartened by the fact that, since Brexit, European Union students can no longer claim home fee status in the UK. Many families moved to countries such as Thailand because the level of international schooling is high and the cost of living relatively low, allowing them to save for their children’s university education for some time – only to now find that their savings might not cover their child’s first UK choice.

In recent years, a growing number of our pupils have been considering the Netherlands in particular because of the quality of the courses and the low tuition fees. Recent developments have only solidified that pathway for many who might previously have seen the UK as a viable option.

Another issue is that many of our non-Thai families have two or more children and have chosen to stay in Thailand until all their children finish their secondary education. Hence, older siblings are worried that going off to study in the UK may mean that they won’t be able to get home to their families in Thailand if the pandemic continues to get worse, due to both financial factors and the strict admittance and quarantine procedures in place.

So although I don’t think Covid-19 has necessarily dampened the enthusiasm of pupils for British universities, or even stopped them applying, there are now many more hurdles for them to overcome. I have concerns, they have concerns and their families have concerns, so what was once a clear-cut choice is now far less so.

Furthermore, I have seen first-hand the heightened mental health struggles that many of our pupils have faced. They have been anxious about Covid-19 and ongoing school closures even while surrounded by their families and in a country that has thus far managed the virus effectively. I have serious worries about how they would cope with online or hybrid learning in a new country. No matter how much support universities aim to provide, anxieties about becoming isolated and unable to get home are playing on the minds of many international students the world over.

So, although applications to the UK may not drop off as much as might have been expected, there is no room for complacency. International students are far more worried and hesitant than the raw application figures reveal. In the wake of ongoing closures, fee increases and fears about the reality of studying in the UK, we may yet see a significant shift towards equally strong alternatives.

A former lecturer in sport and sociology, Sadie Hollins is now head of sixth form at a British curriculum international school in Thailand. She also regularly blogs for WISEducation, a forum devoted to well-being in international school education.

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