Which nations will weather the storm on international recruitment?

Five key recruiting nations’ crisis measures on international student recruitment compared and analysed

June 18, 2020
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Source: Getty/iStock montage

Across the nations usually regarded as the world leaders in higher education, recruitment of international students has become an increasingly essential enterprise, with global student flows providing both scholarly talent and crucial streams of income for Western universities. By halting or drastically reducing the scope for international travel, and its attractiveness, the coronavirus crisis presents a potential existential threat to this model. So how are some of the leading nations in international student recruitment trying to maintain their attractiveness and weather the impact of the crisis? Which nations might be best placed to rise to the top in an even more intensely competitive global race set off by the pandemic?

Times Higher Education reporters around the world analyse the outlooks in five of the world’s biggest recruiting nations.

United States
The US is by far the leading host of foreign students, with China by far its primary supplier. Foreign students account for about 3 per cent of US undergraduate enrolment and 13 per cent of graduate student enrolment.

In the wake of the crisis, US colleges are generally asking not if they will lose foreign students, but how bad the scale of losses will be.

A member survey by Nafsa: Association of International Educators estimates that US colleges spent more than $600 million (about £500 million) helping foreign students and staff after they cancelled on-campus classes in March, and will lose at least $3 billion from reduced foreign enrolment in the autumn.

And there is an orange-hued element to the problem. 

“Some of the biggest political elements that have and will continue to affect enrolment numbers are the policies, rhetoric and actions of the current president and his administration,” said Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy at Nafsa.

US embassies and consulates have remained closed to routine visa services, with no indication of when that will change, Ms Banks added. Trump administration actions since the coronavirus outbreak include plans for new visa restrictions aimed at categories of Chinese graduate students and researchers, an action targeting those deemed to have academic links with the Chinese military and part of the president’s wide-ranging feud with Beijing.

Potentially compounding the problem for US colleges, the Trump administration is reported to be considering further restrictions or outright elimination of Optional Practical Training, a period in which foreign students are allowed to remain in the US beyond their undergraduate or graduate studies to work in jobs related to their fields.
Paul Basken

United Kingdom
A drop in the number of international students will have a huge impact on UK universities, with a recent British Council survey estimating that institutions are likely to face a £463 million loss from a decline in students from East Asia alone.

The UK government has already relaxed some visa requirements for international students, including temporarily allowing students to renew or change the category of their visas without having to return to their home country. And the Department for Education also recently announced the appointment of an International Education Champion, University of Exeter vice-chancellor Sir Steve Smith, to boost the numbers of overseas students in the UK.

However, at the beginning of the crisis, international students reported confusion and some distress after different universities gave conflicting advice on whether they should go home as the pandemic spread. Meanwhile, there have been reports of Chinese students experiencing racism and discrimination in UK institutions. Experts have said both incidents could negatively affect prospective international students’ perceptions of the UK.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said that the main issue was whether a country was perceived as “safe” by international students during the pandemic. Because the UK locked down later and less strictly than a number of European countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand in particular, it may have dented perceptions of its recovery, but the UK was “clearly safer than the US and will benefit from that”, added Professor Marginson.

“Things are changing week by week, but the UK will still be fairly well placed as it has a really strong reputation. The problem is that as a sector the responsibility [for whether to teach online or face-to-face] is left to individual institutions. It sends mixed messages to prospective students about what next year will really look like.”
Anna McKie

Almost every Australian state, territory and university has developed some type of hardship package for international students. Assistance ranges from food hampers and short-term accommodation to grants of up to A$7,500 (£4,100). However, most universities have not offered tuition fee discounts or waivers, aggrieving some students.

As crisis measures, the federal government has allowed some foreign students access to pension contributions that they have accumulated through work in Australia and has temporarily lifted restrictions on their working hours in nursing, care for the elderly and supermarkets.

But Canberra has excluded foreign students from emergency income support and wage subsidy schemes, triggering accusations that it is a “fair weather friend”. It has failed to provide visa flexibility during the crisis and refuses to clarify whether online study contributes to eligibility for post-study work rights. Visa processing has all but stopped.

Prime minister Scott Morrison provoked outrage by saying international students who could not support themselves should “return to their home countries”. Education minister Dan Tehan has suggested that universities’ international operations have detracted from their responsibilities to domestic students.

China’s education ministry has warned students of safety issues in Australia, in a sign of the increasingly acrimonious bilateral relationship.

However, Australia’s success in containing the pandemic – enabling the gradual easing of restrictions – has fuelled optimism that international students will once again enjoy on-campus classes and opportunities to support themselves.

Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, said the government deserved “brownie points” for its pandemic management and for advisory mechanisms such as the Global Reputation Taskforce and the Council for International Education.

“Our governance of the sector is second to none,” he said. “Canada doesn’t even have a federal education department so they’re often falling over one another when it comes to governance.

“But in terms of visa flexibility and hardship funds, we’ve got a long way to go.”
John Ross

Canada is often regarded as one of the most open nations for international students, with its relatively relaxed immigration policies, welcoming rhetoric from government and high quality of life.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government eased employment rules for foreign students, lifting a rule limiting the hours and situations in which they can work. It also waived its usual requirement that time spent studying outside Canada is deducted from the length of the post-graduation work permits for which they are eligible.

Meanwhile, the government has said that foreign students “may be eligible” for its Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), providing temporary income support to those forced to stop working because of Covid-19, if they meet certain requirements.

A separate Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) provides financial support to university students and recent graduates who are unable to find work due to Covid-19 and do not qualify for CERB, but concerns have been raised that it is only available for Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Paul Evans, a professor in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, said that “in terms of intention and in terms of efforts the door is as open as in the past” for international students in Canada.

However, he said that Canadian universities have not developed a “united front” on how they are going to handle the mechanics of bringing overseas students into the country.

“I’ve been reading about Australian efforts to create these corridors where they’re going to get special airplanes to fly people into Australia, put people into hotels for their two weeks of quarantine and then process them as students at their institutions. I haven’t seen that kind of collective effort in Canada yet,” he said.
Ellie Bothwell

When it comes to recruiting international students, Germany is probably best known for its policy of charging (almost) no fees. Although German universities never use this as an explicit selling point, financially hit families once considering sending their children to the pricey universities of the English-speaking world might now look at their bank accounts and wonder whether Germany is a smarter option.

“I do not expect a huge decline in international students, quite the contrary,” said Michael Harms, communications director at the German Academic Exchange Service. The organisation’s network of offices has seen a similar number of enquiries to last year, he said.

Adding to Germany’s appeal is the way that it has managed to control the virus as well as any country in Europe. Regulations vary by state, but shops, museums, galleries, restaurants, gyms and even bars in some cities are back open, while infections, for now, remain low, making for a near-normal student experience – nightclubs excluded.

Precisely because they are not reliant on international student fees, though, German universities can be more cautious about restarting campus life than their UK and US counterparts. There is no uniform approach, but “possibly it will take a little longer as [universities] are not desperate,” said Dr Harms.

The pandemic has thrown an estimated 1 million students out of the part-time jobs so many rely on financially, international students included. In response, the state bank, the KfW, is offering a loan of up to €650 (£579) per month to all students, including international students, which will remain interest-free until the end of next March.

Meanwhile, the German government has told visa offices to waive the requirement to have money in the bank in order to extend a study visa, if a student’s account emptied due to the pandemic. Residence permit extensions will also be longer, and subject to fewer checks.
David Matthews


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