Covid recession ‘may force universities to cut overseas fees’

Experts voice caution on prospect of quick bounceback in UK overseas recruitment post-Covid, highlighting issues around affordability and changing competitive landscape

February 19, 2021
Source: iStock

UK universities could consider introducing cheaper and more flexible degree models for international students in order to sustain overseas recruitment during a pandemic-related recession, according to an expert.

Janet Ilieva, founder of Education Insight and an expert on global student mobility flows, said that the Covid-19 pandemic itself would “probably suppress demand” for international study for about “a year”, but the recession “will have a longer-term lingering impact on student demand, mainly affecting affordability of international study”.

She added that the “only way” institutions could address this issue was to “adjust the price” while maintaining quality.

“What we’ve seen happening is using flexible delivery models and this is working with international partners where the UK degree is probably delivered through different means,” she said, during a webinar hosted by Times Higher Education in partnership with global education consultants AECC.

“Maybe an undergraduate degree is delivered in two years where the first year happens elsewhere. There are flexible degree models that can be deployed to counteract the affordability aspect of an international degree.”

Erik Lithander, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Bristol, added that the UK higher education sector “somehow got out of jail last year” and the “potentially precipitous drop [in recruitment] we were expecting didn’t happen”.

However, he warned that some of the factors that contributed to a better-than-anticipated outcome this academic year may not be replicated next year.

“Australia and New Zealand were largely closed for business this last cycle. The US was particularly unappetising potentially to some applicants. That may not be repeated from September onwards; that might change significantly. And that will change the competitive landscape,” he said.

Dr Lithander added that students may also be more demanding about the quality of education and the university experience next academic year.

“Students were prepared to indulge us with their patience for the online provision that we put in place [this year]. It was great that we could do it, I’m not sure all of us are doing it at a world-class standard and it would be interesting to see the extent to which we can convince students, who will still have significant uncertainty in their minds about what’s happening this coming cycle, whether what we’re offering them will be worth taking a risk on,” he said.

“We definitely need to keep improving that blended offering because I think that is a key to the coming cycle.”

David Pilsbury, deputy vice-chancellor (international development) at Coventry University, said that there was “some indication that the sector might be in for a rather turbulent September” this year, with suggestions of a 30 per cent decline in international recruitment at some institutions.

“We need to beware of thinking that the Covid generation will make decisions on the same basis as the pre-Covid generation…We’re certainly seeing some evidence that the behaviours of the generation making decisions within the pandemic are different. They’re applying to more locations, making multiple choices in terms of jurisdictions. We’ve seen that before but never at this level,” he said.

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