AECC GlobalUK universities must show international students that there is value in the UK study experience

UK universities must show international students that there is value in the UK study experience

The UK’s higher education industry is still measuring pandemic’s impact on student recruitment. In the future, better marketing may buoy the sector

Despite facing challenges when recruiting international students – Brexit and the newly digital learning experience dominated 2020 – there are still reasons for UK universities to be optimistic.

That was the verdict of a joint Times Higher Education and AECC Global webinar, which asked a panel of industry experts how UK institutions can adapt to a new era of digital student recruitment.

Chair Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at THE, asked if any lessons had been learned from a year of global crisis that could inform future recruitment efforts.

Colin Riordan, president and vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, said that the sector had quickly shifted online and developed rapidly evolving methodologies for blended learning. He said that the determination of international students to travel to campus once safe proved they saw the value in the UK study experience.

“I imagine the biggest lesson we’ve learned is how rapidly we can adapt when we have to and when everybody sees the need to do so,” said Riordan.

But Erik Lithander, pro vice-chancellor of global engagement at the University of Bristol, said that with blended learning the new reality, universities need to convince students the study abroad experience is still worth it.

“I think if we’ve learnt one thing, it’s that we somehow got out of jail last year. The potentially precipitous drop we were expecting didn’t happen,” he said. “Students were prepared to indulge us with their patience for the online provision that we put in place. [But] I’m not sure all of us are doing it at world-class standard.”

The impact of Brexit was reflected in the latest Ucas figures, which showed a 40 per cent drop in applications from European Union nationals for undergraduate degrees. However, the number of international students in the UK increased by 12 per cent in 2019/20, driven by a 23 per cent rise in enrolments from non-EU students.

The number of Chinese nationals studying in the UK grew by 20 per cent and, with the current intake cycle looking uncertain, China will continue to be a key market for universities. At the same time, though, the UK is seeing rising geopolitical tensions with China.

“All roads lead to China. We have to find a sophisticated, adult way of engaging with China as a country, not just as a sector,” said David Pilsbury, deputy vice-chancellor of international development at Coventry University. “There’s no point doing fantasy international recruitment. We have to deal with the reality of the market and we also have to deal with the reality of geopolitics.”

Pilsbury said surveys indicated that the UK public was very supportive of Chinese students coming to study in the country. He said universities needed to put out positive messaging about how welcome and cared for international students will be.

Andy Howells, assistant director of external relations at Universities UK, agreed that the sector needs to strengthen how it markets UK study overseas. “We have to really be bolder and braver in the way that we market…putting our students at the heart of what we do and letting them tell their peers exactly how well they’re being looked after,” he said.

“It’s not just about the learning experience, it’s much broader than that,” Howells added.

Janet Ilieva, founder of Education Insight, said that graduate employability would become more prominent for international students and, with concerns over affordability also likely, universities should consider flexible course delivery models.

In a snap survey of the webinar’s viewers, the majority expected student recruitment numbers to return to pre-Covid levels by 2023.

Ilieva said that while there are clear challenges ahead, there are positive signs. For example, the number of Indian students enrolled in UK universities grew by 128 per cent last year, reaching levels not seen for decades. And the latest figures from the Department of Education valued education exports at £23.28 billion, making it the largest services export.

“There has been a strong rebound in international student demand for UK education,” Ilieva said.

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Watch the Times Higher Education and AECC Global webinar above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

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