Will international recruitment survive Covid-19?

The pandemic has prompted dire predictions about international student enrolment at anglophone universities. But will those fears come to pass? Is there an alternative to standard international education? And how much do universities really spend on recruitment agents? Ellie Bothwell reports

March 4, 2021
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Source: All illustrations by Malte Mueller/Getty

International students are so vital to the finances of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that in 2017 its colleges of business and engineering took out insurance against a significant decline in tuition fee income from China. The colleges even had the foresight to include a pandemic clause in the policy.

Unfortunately, the policy expired in May 2020. Six months later, a major survey found that the number of international students starting courses with US universities at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year had nosedived by 43 per cent year-on-year as a result of Covid-19.

For the University of Illinois, it was a cruel stroke of luck. But it is a tale that demonstrates the extent to which research universities in many English-speaking countries have become reliant on income from international students.

Concerns over the impact of Covid-19 on overseas student mobility were among the first higher education headlines when the pandemic hit early last year, with fears of a drop in Chinese student numbers quickly escalating to alarm over the entire global recruitment market.

At the end of March, Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, warned that international student mobility would take at least five years to return to normal levels. Alex Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston University, said in July that some UK universities were braced for a 50 per cent drop in overseas fee income in 2020-21, largely because of the deferral of China’s university entrance exam, the gao kao, and the closure of English language testing sites and visa offices. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned in July that the Covid-19 crisis could bankrupt a dozen UK universities, largely as a result of falls in tuition fee income from international students.

In fact, many UK institutions recruited more international students in 2020-21 than they were expecting. Nevertheless, in December the most selective institutions were still forecasting drops of almost half a billion pounds in income from overseas students this year. And, in Australia, the five largest members of the research-intensive Group of Eight (Go8) – which rely heavily on international students for their revenue – estimated in April that they face revenue shortfalls of between A$240 million and A$600 million (£126 million and £314 million) this year owing to the closure of the country’s borders, with the losses likely to compound over the next few years.

But will such dire predictions come to pass? How quickly can international recruitment be expected to pick up after the pandemic is finally over? And how much will the landscape of global student mobility be impacted by the continued rise in the quality of East Asian universities and more favourable immigration policies in the US and UK?

Elizabeth Shepherd, managing director of consultancy services at Times Higher Education, says that there are seven “megatrends” that can disrupt – and have previously disrupted – international student mobility: demographics, economics, changes to political conditions, growth in education provision, digital technology, global workforce demands and cultural impact.

“The pandemic ignited every single factor. The rule book was torn up,” she says. “International recruitment will survive Covid-19 but will be irreversibly reinvented by the long-term effects of the global recovery period – particularly the shift to online learning, changes to sector employment demands and the political implications of the global vaccine programme.”

Matt Durnin, global head of insights and consultancy at the British Council, believes that once the pandemic is “truly behind us”, there will be a “pretty quick resurgence in student demand. But he agrees that the financial after-effects of the crisis are probably going to wear on quite a bit longer, and that will affect mobility in certain [student] markets more than others.”

The best indicator of the long-term impact of Covid-19, Durnin believes, is the 2008 global economic crisis, from which it took about five years for international undergraduate recruitment to fully recover – although the impact of Covid is likely to vary by type of institution.

“At the top of the league table, this will really just be a speed bump in enrolments, but lower-ranking or middle-ranking universities – particularly those that haven’t built a really strong brand in key markets – are going to struggle,” he says.

Recovery times will also vary by country, Durnin predicts. His assessment is that the UK has “ended up in a very favourable position compared to its competitors” because Australia’s borders may remain closed “well into this year”, Canada’s visa processes have been “very difficult for students to navigate” and Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy had damaged US institutions’ overseas student recruitment even before the pandemic hit – although he concedes that the markedly different tone of the new administration could lead to a rapid reversal.

Sydney-based tertiary education consultant Claire Field is also aware that, under Joe Biden, the US is “likely to become a much more welcoming place for international students”. Indeed, recent data on 900 US institutions reveal an 11 per cent year-on-year increase in applications for the coming autumn, despite a 13 per cent drop from China. However, Field insists that it is still “highly feasible” that international student numbers in Australia will return to 2019 levels “within a couple of years”. Go8 universities, she adds, have been “less impacted than they had expected and less impacted than other universities”. This is partly because their large cohorts of Chinese students have been relatively happy to study online from home; many Indian students, by contrast, have deferred their studies, partly because the Indian government has failed to confirm that it will recognise fully online programmes.

One question for universities in the post-pandemic era is whether they need to change the way they recruit international students.

The use of international education agents has mushroomed over the past decade. Such agents act on behalf of institutions to encourage students to apply and support them through to enrolment. The method is seen as efficient, but it is not without reputational risk, as attested to by stories of students being misinformed or overcharged and applications being submitted with fraudulent qualifications.

A report from the Australian government, published in 2019, found that agents were involved in approximately 75 per cent of Australian overseas student enrolments in 2018. And a Times Higher Education survey of 158 UK universities, published in 2015, similarly found that all but 19 elite or specialist institutions used agents to enrol non-European Union students.

A follow-up investigation, carried out by THE between November 2020 and January 2021, suggests that picture is largely unchanged: of the 131 universities that responded to a Freedom of Information request, only 22 said they do not use agents.

However, one thing that has changed is universities’ openness about the sums of money involved. In 2015, 108 institutions provided details of commission payments: their spending in 2013-14 totalled £89.5 million, roughly a 16.5 per cent increase on the outlay of two years earlier. However, in the more recent survey, only 26 institutions provided figures; most of the 81 that refused cited commercial confidentiality. The reported commission payments amount to £31.2 million in 2019-20. However, total UK spending is likely to be far higher than it was in 2013-14 given that the 10 biggest spenders in that year either refused to provide figures this time around or did not respond to the FoI request. In most cases, these institutions would not even say how many students they recruited via agents.

Whether that rising spending translates into higher enrolments, however, is a moot point. With the caveat of the smaller sample size in the second survey, the data reveal that universities are spending more on agents per student. Of the 24 universities that provided information on both recruitment volumes and spending, the average agent fee paid per student in 2019-20 was £2,261: a 28 per cent increase on the equivalent figure in 2013-14 (£1,767, based on figures from 101 institutions).

Vincenzo Raimo, chief relationship officer at global student accommodation provider Unilodgers and an expert on transnational education and the use of agents, says that the large number of institutions refusing to disclose information “points to the increasing competition among universities for international student recruitment and the increased commercialisation of the sector”. However, he questions the logic of such reticence.

“You shouldn’t be afraid of it if it is an appropriate and justified activity,” he says. “If you’re using agents, you’re doing so because you think it’s an effective way of working. It’s just another channel of recruitment – it’s like saying, do you advertise? Do you produce a prospectus?”

Nor may the reticence be sustainable. The Office for Students’ review of the admissions system in English higher education will address the question of whether the role and outlay on recruitment agents is sufficiently transparent, while the Quality Assurance Agency advises that universities should publish the names of agents they work with.

Australia and New Zealand have both already enacted legislation governing institutions’ engagement with education agents. But Pii-Tuulia Nikula, a senior lecturer at New Zealand’s Eastern Institute of Technology, says that New Zealand’s law is not as robust as it could have been. The draft legislation “said that institutions should be transparent and list all the agents they work with. But there was very strong pushback from the industry and it was actually withdrawn from the legislation.”

Nikula, whose research focuses on international education, adds that the transparency is less than perfect in Australia, too. The government there publishes a sector overview of the use of agents and institutions have to publicly disclose all the agents they work with, but much of the information collected by Canberra is not published.

One gaping hole in both countries’ rules, according to Nikula, is a requirement for institutions to disclose their spending on commission. Hence, “the student usually wouldn’t know that an agent decision [to direct them towards a particular institution] might be based on them actually getting twice as much money from [that] institution as from another,” she says – although she adds that “good agents are probably worth every penny they get”.

Raimo, who was formerly pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading, says that the apparent increase in commission payments per student in the UK partly reflects the increase in international tuition fees over the same period. However, it also demonstrates the “pressure to increase commissions. When I was first working in international student recruitment more than 20 years ago, everybody paid a flat 10 per cent commission, certainly in the Russell Group. What’s happened since then is that there has been a ratcheting up in commission rates.” His latest research suggests that those rates now typically range between 12.5 and 15 per cent. On top of that, agents often receive bonuses if they recruit a certain number of students, he adds.

The latest data also suggest that UK universities are also using agents for recruiting students from within the EU (an area that was not explored in the previous survey). The 58 universities that disclosed relevant figures had an average of 21 agent contracts each for EU recruitment in 2019-20, compared with 107 for non-EU recruitment. A median of 42 EU students per institution were recruited via agents in 2019-20, based on responses from 36 campuses; at 18 out of the 22 universities that also shared data for 2014-15, that number has increased in the intervening five years.

Raimo suspects that few universities used EU agents back in 2014 since EU students historically paid the same tuition fees as domestic students do, meaning there was no financial incentive to recruit them over UK students. However, post-Brexit, UK universities are able to charge international-level fees to EU students, in preparation for which agent fees may have been seen as justifiable, Raimo suggests.

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Another new trend is the emergence of “super agents”, “master agents” or “agent-aggregators”, who manage whole networks of agents for institutions. But while this model saves universities from having to directly manage scores of contracts with individual agents, the wider financial and academic implications of creating yet another layer of recruitment bureaucracy between institutions and prospective students is still unclear, Raimo says.

One example of an agent-aggregator is ApplyBoard, which was founded in 2015 and describes itself as a study abroad application platform that connects international students, recruitment partners and academic institutions. Last year it formed a UK advisory board led by former universities minister Jo Johnson – now Lord Johnson of Marylebone – and also containing the UK government’s international education champion and former University of Exeter vice-chancellor Sir Steve Smith, former Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook and Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman.

While the use of agents has long been seen as controversial, Raimo says that the status of such figures illustrates that agents “have become a mainstream and trusted part of our business”.

Eddie West, assistant dean of international strategy and programmes at San Diego State University, suggests that an alternative approach to managing agent networks would be for universities to hire their own full-time staff based in the traditional source countries of international students. He says that universities have relied even more heavily on agents during the pandemic since campus-based staff cannot travel: “People based in the country [from which the university wants to recruit] become that much more important as ambassadors who can spread the good word about your institution,” he says. But recent research that West conducted with Raimo and others indicates that relationships with agents – who typically work on behalf of multiple institutions – require careful nurturing: “Universities that…just signed a bunch of contracts and hoped for the best had the worst outcomes in terms of enrolment successes,” he says.

West concedes that in a post-pandemic era of austerity, not every institution will be able to afford to hire their own overseas recruitment staff. But he stresses that while universities “may not have to invest financially up front [in agents] they do have to invest people power in managing an agent network” if they want to recruit successfully.

Another post-pandemic prediction among international education experts is the rise of alternative modes of study. One example is a transnational model whereby students would stay in their home country for the first year or two of their programme – working either remotely or at a local partner institution or branch campus – before finishing their degree abroad. A step in this direction was recently taken by EduCity, a complex in Malaysia that houses three UK branch campuses and other institutions. It proposed that international universities use its facilities to recruit and temporarily house Asian students who are interested in an overseas education but are not ready to travel long distances because of Covid. The idea is that they would take the same credit-bearing online classes as their peers while taking advantage of their local campus’ libraries, labs, sports facilities and social opportunities, before eventually transferring to their university’s home campus.

Australia’s University of Wollongong had a similar idea of using its Malaysian branch campus as a “stepping stone” for overseas students, who could then finish their degree Down Under. And West says that agents could be well placed to help with such split-site programmes. “They would probably be quick to say: ‘Our value is to not only help recruit at the front end of the process and get a student to start a degree in Shanghai, say, but also to do that often crucial advising work about student visa acquisition, pre-departure orientation and post-arrival support…once that student is able to make their way to the US or wherever they’re going,’” he says.

But the British Council’s Durnin is sceptical of such predictions. He admits that many universities with transnational operations in major East Asian markets have seen demand for it increase this year. But he points out that, in most cases, the capacity of such operations cannot increase significantly – in China, for example, the Ministry of Education imposes strict quotas on student numbers at branch campuses.

Other observers have said that the pandemic may lead to even more significant upheaval, with Asian students staying within their home region for the entirety of their degree. In March, for instance, Oxford’s Marginson predicted that there was likely to be a permanent shift towards more East Asian students studying in other countries within the region. And John McNamara, global research manager for international education services at the British Council, said in June that countries such as China and Malaysia could become major competitors to English-speaking countries in international recruitment.

THE’s Shepherd says that “established, regional study destinations” in Asia that have seen a large growth in international and domestic provision over the past decade, such as Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong, are likely to become even more attractive and “reap rewards” while global travel restrictions last – which, according to some predictions, could be until 2023.

However, Durnin is dubious about this too, as research suggests that transnational and internationally mobile students are “mostly two very different groups…The pandemic has created a larger amount of overlap, at least temporarily, but I don’t see a sea change in students shifting their focus regionally. That’s something that might happen over a much longer timeline and this pandemic might help nudge us in that direction, but I don’t think we’re going to see a massive shake-up [in the short term].”

Research suggests that his inkling may be correct. A recent study found that while, in the early stages of the pandemic, there was increased interest among Chinese students in studying within East Asia, their aspirations have now reverted to more traditional higher education destinations.

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What about price points? According to Uwe Brandenburg, managing director of the Global Impact Institute and associate professor for regional cooperation and impact of higher education at Spain’s Rovira i Virgili University, international student numbers have held up relatively well during the pandemic at universities on the European continent – which typically charge overseas students very little for tuition.

Brandenburg – who previously headed international offices at two German universities – stresses that continental systems do not recruit overseas students entirely out of altruism: such students are valued for increasing diversity in the classroom and, if they stay in the country after graduation, improving the quality of the national workforce. But he is clear that the low price point, while serving to attract them, also gives continental universities a little more leeway in terms of student expectations.

“If you are charged a high amount then you ask yourself: ‘Is it worth it to sit in a dormitory somewhere in London or Cambridge or Boston and see my professor maybe on a screen, if at all. If you don’t pay, you might be more willing to live with some shortcomings,” he says.

As well as allowing them to compete better on price with continental universities, lowering international fees in the anglophone world could also address another factor that has achieved greater salience during the pandemic: inequality. Brandenburg says that where tuition fees are not a major factor, universities can focus on the quality and diversity of applicants, rather than their wealth. Nevertheless, he concedes that unequal access to high-quality secondary education and the relatively high cost of living in Western countries is such that “it would be an illusion to say that in the no-tuition-fee systems you have the opportunity of complete equal access for everybody”. 

For his part, San Diego’s West sees little prospect of widening international participation rising up anglophone universities’ priority lists any time soon. While the most selective and wealthy universities have the luxury of being able to recruit international students from a wide range of backgrounds because they “have more international applications than they know what to do with”, these institutions are the exception. “For most universities it’s going to be exceedingly difficult in this climate to suddenly invest more than they had been in doing outreach to underrepresented international students, whether you’re talking underrepresentation on a country-by-country basis or socioeconomically or both”.

Indeed, most experts suggest that, in the short term at least, anglophone universities will simply do whatever it takes to shore up their short-term finances. So much so, in fact, that they may, in the process, damage their longer-term prospects. For instance, while the wisdom of drawing students from a wide range of countries has been illustrated by the differential impact that the pandemic has had on mobility from different countries, Field, the Sydney-based consultant, says that institutions might be tempted initially to stick to what they know.

“There will be a short-term tension, I suspect, while institutions look to recruit students from countries and regions they are familiar with [while] the government encourages greater diversity,” she says.

As public revenues for teaching and research are redirected into repaying the vast debts that countries have taken on to nurse their economies through the pandemic, it is easy to conclude that, when it comes to international recruitment, expediency will indeed trump strategy and philosophy, at least for the time being. Either way, universities in marketised systems look set to become more reliant than ever on their secret armies of international recruitment agents.

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Reader's comments (4)

So the Institute of Fiscal Studies was 100 percent wrong but they still keep their jobs!
The Australian and British universities are over-reliant on two sets of villains, agents and international pathway providers such as Navitas/Study Group. They are parasites who have managed to feed off a system that doesn't need them.
Thank you Ellie, a really thought provoking article. It would be interesting to know how many international students at the 109 universities (who used agents in the latest THE survey) used agents to support them through the process?...and what proportion that is of the total overseas student cohort.
Thank you. I agree. But unfortunately the data are very patchy on that question - many institutions refused to disclose that information.

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