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The Covid-19 pandemic has had a considerable impact on the number of international students attending British universities, with record deferrals and sharp declines in applications plaguing UK institutions since 2020. The phenomenon is not limited to the UK, though. The share of US institutions reporting increasing internationalisation – including international learners, study-abroad programmes and other global engagement efforts – fell from 72 per cent in 2016 to 21 per cent by 2021. Meanwhile, the number of international students studying in Australia fell by half during the pandemic.
As travel restrictions and other Covid protocols continue to loosen around the world, international student enrolment is, at last, starting to show signs of recovery. But the market has drastically changed in the intervening years. Students have grown far more concerned about the return on investment (ROI) of their education, and they are starting to look beyond traditionally popular destinations and well-known universities as a result.
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Since 2012, Turkey has increased its number of international students from 25,000 to 250,000. In the Netherlands, the number of international students has risen so sharply in recent years that the country is facing a shortage of student housing. Germany is attracting record numbers of international learners, and Malaysia is having immense success recruiting students with programmes that have other global connection points. The sector has rarely been this competitive, crowded or unpredictable, meaning colleges and universities worldwide must work harder than ever to prove to learners that the experience of learning in their country is still worth a student’s and their family’s time and money.
International students have made it clear that the pandemic has not extinguished dreams of pursuing their education abroad. They have, however, experienced a major shift in what they consider to be most important when making decisions about their educational journey.
Affordability is increasingly a top concern for students. According to research by International Consultants for Education and Fairs (ICEF), the cost of studying and living now ranks as the most important factor for students when deciding where to study internationally, coming in above even immigration and work opportunities. With tuition rising in historically in-demand study-abroad destinations such as the UK, Australia and the US, students are turning to more affordable countries including Japan and Italy.
Countries and their higher education institutions (HEIs) must not only find ways to reduce the cost of tuition and other educational expenses but also ways to mitigate the cost of living for international learners. More, for instance, are allowing students to work while studying. The UK government is considering increasing the hours international students can work during their studies, which will make it more feasible for students to attend one of their HEIs. Other institutions are exploring new financing options as ways to reduce the cost for learners.
While the cultural and societal benefits that come with studying abroad are priceless, students and families are increasingly asking colleges and universities to quantify their ROI of attending an institution. Affordability is important, but today’s international students are particularly keen on leveraging their education and the experience of international study to jump-start high-paying, rewarding careers. How institutions help students find placement and how many of their students benefit from career services are questions that HEIs should be prepared to answer.
A survey released last year by the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute found that while 82 per cent of respondents said career support was an important factor in choosing a university to attend, just half believed their institution met the career needs of international students. Programmes of study must be tied more closely to in-demand fields and industries, providing students with relevant skills that qualify them for internships which will propel them on their career path. Career services must increase their global reach to better serve all students at all stages of the college experience at their institution, but in particular as students search for how to turn their education into gainful, rewarding employment upon graduation.
Flexibility is also key. From offering more online courses to providing dual-degree programmes that enable students to master multiple fields of study at once, institutions should aim to grant learners the flexibility they need to better tailor their international learning experience. This includes providing more flexible payment plans for students financing their education.
Finally, institutions would be wise to double down on retention efforts. While most international students intend to remain and work in their host country after graduation, comparatively few do. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, for example, just a quarter of international graduates stay in their host countries long term. Countries and institutions looking to remain competitive in an increasingly crowded global marketplace must work to not only give their international students a reason to stick around after graduation but the means to do so. They should provide clearer pathways to citizenship, prepare students for and offer more work experience opportunities, and seek to ensure international students feel welcome and at home on campus and in their communities. Recently published Apply Board insights predict that those countries with the most attractive post-graduation work offerings will draw more international students.
Following the global upheaval of the pandemic, students across the globe are rightly asking important questions about the value and worth of a degree – at home and abroad. Institutions must work harder than ever to ensure they are providing the best benefit and path forward for international learners if they are to secure their place on the world stage of higher education.
Cagri Bagcioglu is head of eastern Europe and central Asia at Cintana Education.
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