Experts see limited impact of new Covid strains on UK recruitment

Resilience of demand for UK education and short-term nature of disruptions highlighted

December 26, 2020
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The emergence of two new variants of Covid-19 in the UK might impact universities’ ability to recruit international students, but the effect is likely to be small, experts have predicted.

More than 40 countries, including several nations in Europe, imposed bans on travellers arriving from the UK in response to a more infectious strain of the virus spreading across the country. The UK itself has banned entries from South Africa following concern over a second variant linked to the country.

Although most of the travel bans are affecting outbound flights from the UK, the news of the two new variants might deter international students from arriving at or applying to institutions in the country. The timing is particularly significant because a substantial number of international students were set to either begin their academic year in January or start face-to-face teaching next month following a first term of online study arranged by institutions in response to the pandemic. Many students looking to start university in 2021-22 will also be making their choices now.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, said that given the winter upsurge in Covid-19 cases and the new strains, “some will not want to travel into and live in the UK”. However, he said, the latest developments “will have a marginal quantitative effect, rather than changing the situation qualitatively”.

Regarding current international students, he said that while some will drop out, many will “opt to do everything online” instead.

“The lesson of the July-September recruitment period is how resilient is effective demand for non-EU international education in the UK, especially for Russell Group places, when institutions make the effort. I think we underestimated the strength of long-term demand,” he said.

“Despite the fact that the UK had bad Covid-19 statistics, and this was widely known throughout the world, families and students signed up in more than sufficient numbers. The UK is the only major international education provider where non-EU international student numbers rose in this academic year.”

Janet Ilieva, founder and director of international education consultancy Education Insight, said the new Covid-19 variants and travel disruptions would affect mostly international students who opted to start their studies in January, as well as European Union students who have not yet arrived in the UK and were planning to arrange their settled status at the end of December, before the end of the Brexit transition period.

“Given the current health advice and travel situation, they are highly unlikely to be able to arrange their visa status at present,” she said.

However, she continued, if the disruptions “remain short-term, then they would have a minimal impact on students’ decisions to study abroad”.

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