As The World Reopens, What Will Change In International Education? (Part 1/2)
COVID-related restrictions have precipitated massive, short-term changes in the international education space. Students have seen their lifelong plans disrupted, had their overseas University or Vocational studies delayed or conducted entirely online and in many cases had to change plans completely. As borders reopen, on-campus classes resume and international students once more start to travel abroad, which of these changes will remain with us for some time? And how will both students and institutions respond?
Trends that were appearing pre-COVID
Education agents and University recruiters had already noticed some distinct shifts in student preferences for overseas study. Some of these are peculiar to individual source countries, other are more global in nature.
The Turning Dragon
Prior to 2020 students from China were less likely to want to study in the United States or Australia, and more inclined to choose Universities in Canada or the United Kingdom. Growth in the number of Chinese students choosing to study abroad had slowed but the US and Australia felt this most strongly. The reduction in overall growth is largely due to the rapid increase in the quality of local education options for Chinese students. Highly publicized diplomatic and trade disputes that saw China clashing with the US and Australia have not helped the flow of international students to those markets.
The 2018 OECD Program for International Assessment (PISA) which assesses the reading, maths and science performance of students internationally ranked the Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang school system as #1 in the world for reading, maths and science. Other Asian regions dominated the PISA league table, with Singapore as the #1 nation overall followed by Macao and Hong Kong. Canada was the leading Western English-speaking nation, with traditional international high school student markets like the United States and Australia not even in the top 10. Of course, there are spectacular individual schools in countries like the US and Australia, but their overall PISA performance does not inspire confidence in Chinese parents looking at the best high school options for their children.
Higher quality high schools in China are producing more University-ready graduates, placing pressure on pathway programs offered by education giants such as Navitas, INTO, Kaplan and Study Group. With higher levels of student achievement in Chinese high schools, fewer students need to complete a Foundation Studies year.
Chinese Universities have also improved their global ranking performance in recent years, with two Chinese Universities – Peking University and Tsinghua University – making it into the Times Higher Education global top 20. Always a rankings-focussed market, this has made Chinese students more inclined to complete their undergraduate studies locally, before heading abroad to complete a postgraduate degree. As China pushes to bring more international students to its shores, there is potential for long-term disruption in the sector as the traditional study destinations of the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand find more competition closer to their main source markets in Asia.
Taking it Online
Many leading Universities had already moved to make lectures available online, only requiring students to physically attend labs and tutorials. Nearly a decade ago MIT, Duke, Georgia Tech and Harvard were planning for a future of blended learning with portions of all degree programs delivered remotely. In 2018 around 30% of US University students took at least one online course as part of their degree program, despite many of them studying other courses on campus. These tentative steps towards a blended, flexible learning environment were largely based on asynchronous recorded lectures supported by live online tutorials and/ or discussion panels.
Qualifications delivered entirely online were (and still are, if to a slightly lesser extent) viewed as inferior to in-person qualifications by many. China and India, for example, do not recognize overseas qualifications studied exclusively online. This is an important consideration for students looking to return to their home country for employment at some point in the future, particularly if they aspire to a role in the public sector such as the prestigious career opportunities in the massive Indian public service.
For undergraduate students, the pre-COVID online experience was one of convenience, not the main focus of their education. The ability to catchup on lectures via video to accommodate work or other commitments, to take a course not available at their chosen campus to supplement their main areas of study was attractive. As we will explore below, we can expect a strong ongoing preference for in-person, on-campus learning from both international and domestic undergraduate students.
The Rise of Canada and the UK
In 2019 Canada welcomed more than 400,000 new international students to its shores, a 13% increase on the previous year. This is similar to the total for Australia, but with a faster growth rate. Canada’s attractive immigration regime and broad range of high-quality education providers (bolstered no doubt by its impressive school performance) have increased its appeal to international students, particularly from India. Indian students accounted for 35% of all new arrivals to Canada in 2019, eclipsing the declining Chinese segment who made up just over 20%.
The UK has bucked several trends. In the 2019/2020 academic year the UK saw an increase in the number of students arriving from China, India and the USA. Brexit fears did little to dampen enrolments from EU nations, with the number of students arriving from the EU much the same as the previous year. The value proposition of a Masters degree in the UK – which can be completed in one year and potentially offers a 2 year post-study work visa – is extremely compelling. Especially when most competitor nations require 2 years to complete a Masters program. UK graduates can join the workforce a year earlier than their peers in other countries, and have 2 years of post-study employment to build their future.
With a restrictive immigration regime, the United States has missed many opportunities. Whilst elite students flock to the top US Universities (Who don’t offer agency commissions – because they don’t need to. They have more applicants than they can handle.), the majority of US institutions have a poor international presence and their game is a long way behind their competitors in other Western nations. International students in the USA are also excluded from many part-time employment opportunities that are available in competitor nations.
The Informed Consumer
From the earliest days of global student mobility, education agents have wielded enormous power in the industry. For large markets like Australia, agents supply around 75% of all international students. For some institutions that share may be as high as 90%.
Until recently, prospective students would arrive in an agent’s office with the idea that they wanted to study overseas. Some might be set on a particular program, or institution, or country – but agents could exercise their influence to sway students in a particular direction. As the font of knowledge for all matters in education, both students and their parents would trust the judgement of the agent to guide them to the right decision.
The rapid expansion of internet access and social media platforms has completely changed the dynamics in this relationship. Parents and students still place considerable trust in agents, but they are far better informed. Having done their own extensive online research, discussed options directly with institutional representatives and students/ alumni, prospective students and their parents often arrive with a very firm idea of precisely where and what they want to study.
Many agents hold that students first choose their country of study, then their city and finally their institution. The importance of brand presence and awareness for all three cannot be understated. Whilst agents still transact the vast majority of student enrolments, their influence over their customer choice has waned. The smarter and more innovative institutions were wise to this trend and had moved to build their presence in core markets. Aggressive recruiters setup in-country offices to provide a higher level of service to agents and to run institution-specific campaigns and events to build their local brand presence and make students more inclined to choose them before walking into an agent’s office for the first time.
Even before 2020, institutions could no longer rely on bonus commissions and other direct agent incentives to take share from their competitors and boost enrolments. These tools still have a role to play, but the more successful institutions have been partnering with their agents in joint campaign activity to build brand awareness and engage students early in the sales cycle through events such as school outreach programs and the use of local social media influencers.
The new normal?
Will these trends endure? What new trends are emerging, or are likely to emerge? Will things every be the same again? Who is best positioned to take advantage of the great global reopening? Please continue to read part 2/2.