UK overseas recruitment ‘could bounce back next year’

British Council expert says universities should be prepared for more deferrals, cancellations and late decision-making over the next 12 months

January 19, 2021
bounce back balls illustrating return of recruitment for research positions in Australia and New Zealand to pre-pandemic levels
Source: iStock

UK universities could see a significant surge in international student enrolments in the next academic year, but they should brace themselves for uncertainty down to the wire, according to an expert.

Matt Durnin, global head of insights and consultancy at the British Council, said he saw “a path back to normal – or at least something close to it” for international education, “but it’s winding and will be punctuated by risk, uncertainty and probably at least a few more surprises”.

Speaking during the British Council’s International Education Virtual Festival, Mr Durnin said international student recruitment numbers “could be quite strong” in 2021-22, particularly given the pace of Covid vaccine distribution. However, he added, students were “going to delay their decisions much later than normal, and that’s going to increase a lot of uncertainty for institutions, and we will still be in that position of not really knowing how many students we firmly have on our books until very late in the year”.

He said “January 2022 could end up being the fallback – in a way, what we hoped January 2021 would be”.

Regarding the current academic year, Mr Durnin said that while international enrolments “by and large look fairly good”, the risk was that “as students continue to delay their travel plans to learn on campus, we may see a rise in deferrals or cancellations”. He suggested that this could apply to both students who started their degree in the autumn but have been studying offshore and to those who had planned to begin their degree this month.

“A lot of you had pinned hope on a January intake,” he said. “We think, particularly for east Asia, a lot of these students are waiting until around the Lunar New Year, which is the second week of February, to make a final decision on whether they will travel.

“If we don’t see a large number of students coming across around that time, we suspect there will be a significant rise in cancellations and deferrals for study.”

Mr Durnin said the primary concern for international students during the pandemic has been health, but financial worries were likely to overtake this in the next 12 months. He cited India, Malaysia and Thailand as countries where economic problems could be especially prohibitive to overseas mobility. In contrast, while students from China, Hong Kong and Nigeria have been very concerned about health, he said financial factors were less likely to prevent them from travelling abroad for study in the near future.

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