UK universities face £463m loss from east Asia student decline

But British Council study estimates that income drop could reach £2.3 billion in most ‘pessimistic scenario’

June 8, 2020

UK universities will likely have at least 14,000 fewer new enrolments from east Asia in the coming academic year, leading to a decline of £463 million in spending on tuition and living expenses, the British Council has predicted.

The warning comes after Germany’s largest organisation dedicated to international academic cooperation said that higher education needed to reassert the value of physical mobility in today’s “new, more digital world”.

A British Council survey of more than 15,000 prospective students from eight countries in the region, carried out between 24 April and 15 May, found that 29 per cent were at least “somewhat likely” to delay or cancel their overseas study plans this year, while 35 per cent were still undecided, saying that they were “neither likely nor unlikely” to do so.

However, responses varied widely across study levels and countries. Almost half (45 per cent) of prospective students in Indonesia and Taiwan, for instance, were at least somewhat likely to delay or cancel their plans, compared with 14 per cent among mainland Chinese respondents.

The survey also saw notably stronger intentions to delay or cancel plans among prospective postgraduate students, while this cohort also overwhelmingly favoured a face-to-face start in January (63 per cent) over an autumn start online (15 per cent). 

Undergraduate students were more closely split; 37 per cent preferred the idea of an online start in autumn, compared with 46 per cent preferring a delayed January start.

Matt Durnin, global head of insights and consultancy at the British Council and author of the study, said this may be because most postgraduate enrolments from the region are on one-year postgraduate taught courses “so a disruption to the autumn term would have significant impact on the total study experience”.

The British Council used tuition fee data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and student expenditure data from the government to estimate what impact potential delays and cancellations from prospective students in east Asia would have on university finances.

When analysing only those respondents who said they were very likely to delay or cancel or had already done so, the study calculated that this would result in 13,539 fewer new students in 2020-21, a 12 per cent decline compared with 2018-19 (the most recent year of enrolment data). This would lead to a £463 million drop in spending on tuition and living expenses, roughly equivalent to the annual income of a mid-sized UK university, it said.

A more “pessimistic scenario”, taking into account students who were somewhat likely to delay or cancel as well as those sitting on the fence, would mean 68,267 fewer new east Asian students, a 61 per cent decline compared with 2018-19. This would result in a £2.3 billion decline in spending on tuition and living expenses, slightly more than the total income that the University of Cambridge reported last year.

However, Mr Durnin said that the figures probably underestimate the financial impact of a decline in east Asian enrolment as the analysis did not take into account the potential withdrawal of current students or the multi-year impact of lost undergraduates. Meanwhile, students who had already decided to cancel their overseas study plans would have been less likely to complete the survey, he added.

The study surveyed prospective students with outbound study plans across eight east Asian territories: mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. These markets accounted for 52 per cent of new non-European Union international students in the UK in 2018-19.

Speaking at the British Council’s virtual Going Global event on 5 June, Christian Muller, deputy general secretary of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), said that the organisation was set to introduce digital mobility scholarships for students who are unable to travel post-coronavirus. However, he stressed that higher education needed “to formulate a new narrative on mobility as physical mobility comes under pressure from the opportunities of digital or virtual mobility”.

“There is very clearly a new need for defining and expressing why physical mobility is still a very important thing, has its own value, [and] maybe even has a differentiated value in this new, more digital world,” he said, during a session on supporting international learners through coronavirus.

He also predicted that student mobility would shift towards “regional mobility rather than inter-continental mobility” in the wake of Covid-19, while transnational education, in which students remain in their home country but study with a foreign provider, was likely to grow.

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