As The World Reopens, What Will Change In International Education? (Part 2/2)
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?
China Will Not Vanish from the Stage
Despite the slowdown of Chinese student growth and the rapid increase in students coming from India, China will remain a strong source market. Elite-level students from China will continue to pursue opportunities at the world’s leading Universities, overwhelmingly located in the traditional Western destinations. The most recent Times Higher Education global top 100 Universities were overwhelmingly located in the USA, UK and Canada – with only 2 of the top 20 in China and none of the top 10. Even as high school and undergraduate numbers decline, Chinese students will continue to pursue postgraduate qualifications internationally.
Rise of the Subcontinent
Markets such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh all offering growing populations, growing economies and a healthy appetite for a tertiary-qualified workforce that local institutions cannot meet the demand for. In Sri Lanka alone, local Universities can only accommodate around 20% of high school graduates who qualify for entry – leaving those who can afford it with little option but to pursue studies overseas. Western institutions (and countries like Australia) that became overly dependant on China as a source of students need to be wary of avoiding the same mistake in India, and putting all of their eggs in the subcontinent basket. There are also economic constraints – the cost to recruit a student in India can be up to 3 times higher than in China. A fragmented agency channel with high reliance on multiple layers of sub-agents, lower quality internet infrastructure, less efficient direct lead generation options and lower lead conversion rates all push up the price of student acquisition. That said, this region has many years of growth ahead of it, with India only just embracing internationalisation from a policy perspective and the need for both vocational and higher education is growing rapidly as the Indian economy develops.
Whilst not offering the billion-plus populations of China or India, many high-growth markets have not enjoyed the attentions of international recruiters. Vietnam, The Philippines, other parts of Asia, many Latin American nations, Eastern Europe & emerging markets in Africa all offer strong economies and a growing demand for skilled labour, combined with a lack of local tertiary opportunities. For first movers in these markets who can establish their brands, a long-term advantage awaits.
Return to Campus
Despite a strong embrace of online and blended learning during the pandemic period, both domestic and international students show a strong preference for on-campus instruction. A recent poll of US University students found that the vast majority had a preference for some on-campus instruction, with the social aspect of campus life a critical part of the student experience.
International students also crave the campus life. Partly driven by a market perception that face-to-face instruction is higher quality, partly due to regulators in many source country markets taking a dim view of qualifications acquired online – as previously noted some do not recognize 100% online degrees.
This demand for on-campus instruction shows no sign of abating, with a 2020 IDP poll of 6,000 international students who were not able to commence their degree programs on campus due to COVID restrictions finding:
“Thirty-one per cent of respondents stated they would be willing to start their course online and move to face-to-face learning at a later date, but by far the greatest preference was to defer to January 2021 if this meant face-to-face learning would be possible,”
47 per cent stated the standard of online teaching was a concern.”
The central student demand arising from the COVID era that will continue in the “new normal” is flexibility. To attract and retain students, Universities must take a student-centric approach to all academic, support and administrative services. Leading Universities such as Stanford are embracing this demand to ensure viability post-COVID and planning to continue delivering blended learning (with students having the option to attend on or off campus). They are joined by the likes of Harvard, MIT, UNSW, Monash, University of Manchester, Imperial College London, National University of Singapore and Cambridge – who have all stated their plans to continue blended delivery beyond 2021.
Blended, flexible learning environments satisfy the seemingly contradictory student demands for social connection, on-campus lifestyle, flexibility to accommodate work & other obligations and convenience. The old retail adage that “convenience drives purchase” has well and truly come to the education sector.
Where to Go?
The borders of both Australia and New Zealand are still effectively closed. Both countries have announced multiple trials for the return of international students that have come to nothing of substance and either been deferred or scaled back. Australia’s largest State is due to end quarantine requirements for vaccinated arrivals from the 1st of November this year – too late for anyone looking to commence studies before Semester one 2022.
Canada reopened its borders to international students months ago, and has already allowed more than 20,000 students into the country – with hundreds of thousands of applications pending for 2022 commencement. Students locked out of Australia and New Zealand are switching to Canada and the UK – including students already studying onshore who are now transferring their enrolments to overseas institutions to finish their qualifications, frustrated by prolonged border closures and other restrictions.
The brand damage to Australia and New Zealand as study destinations is not just in the minds of current and potential students – loyal agents have felt betrayed by the countries that they supported for years, sometimes for decades. Agents mostly or wholly dependant on commissions from partners in Australia and New Zealand found their incomes devastated in 2020 and were forced to quickly forge new partnerships with institutions in Canada, the UK, USA, Ireland and other more “open” destinations in response to student demand.
As destinations, Australia and New Zealand will eventually recover (Australia has weathered brand damage before) as their long-term value propositions are strong. In the near future, however, both the UK and Canada look set to take significant market share.
Offering the combination of highly ranked educational institutions, growing employment markets, favourable post-study work regimes and technologically advanced societies with a liberal outlook, both countries are highly attractive. The United States may join them, depending on its immigration settings and (perhaps more importantly) the signals it sends to the world about who is, or is not welcome.
The instability of the post-pandemic world combined with a customer base (and students are customers – they are paying significant amounts of money and expecting a return on that investment) and rapid advances in technology combine to offer opportunities for institutions that are flexible, competitive and willing to immerse themselves in their source markets. However the underlying drivers of international education and student choices – quality education, favourable visa conditions and strong brand appeal will endure. As Snake Pliskin observed, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”