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    What Are Prospective International Students Prioritising Right Now?

    Let's take a look at what the research around what prospective international students are prioritising at the moment is saying.
    Last updated:
    December 3, 2021

    As we head towards the end of 2020 (and what a year it’s been!), we’re taking stock of the recent research around what prospective international students are prioritising at the moment. We’ll also be sharing some tips around what higher education providers can do to remain attractive to international students as we journey into 2021. 

    Image by Clay Banks.

    What are international students looking for in the short-term?


    On 29 September, higher education think tank QS published research exploring the attitudes of prospective international students in relation to studying abroad, six months on from the beginning of the UK’s nationwide lockdown in March. The data is part of ongoing research into how COVID-19 is impacting higher education

    QS questioned 1,021 prospective international students who were interested in studying in the UK. The research reveals that restrictions on leaving and entering different countries had the biggest impact on international students being able to begin their overseas studies in 2020. Let’s take a look at some of the report’s key findings:

    • 32 per cent intended to start their studies in 2020; 84 per cent who said they would like to start their studies in 2021 currently expect to do so.
    • 31 per cent of respondents expect a return to ‘normal’ within six months, while 28 per cent expect it to take 12 months. 30 per cent said they expect life to return to ‘normal’ in one to two years.
    • 45 per cent stated that they will feel comfortable travelling abroad to study once campuses reopen and face-to-face teaching resumes. 43 per cent said they will study abroad when a vaccine is available, and a quarter said they’d feel comfortable travelling to another country to study when they are legally permitted to.
    • A third of prospective international students said that government restrictions on leaving their country of residence impacted their ability to start their studies in 2020 - 30 per cent explained that restrictions on entering their country of study impacted them.

    Universities have been working relentlessly this year under challenging circumstances to put contingency plans in place to accommodate students.

    Earlier in the year, we wrote about how universities are mitigating the impact of COVID-19 to obtain international diversity in admissions. According to QS’ report, 77 per cent of prospective international candidates believe that universities have been effective at supporting international students during COVID-19.

    Where are international students choosing to study?

    A new report by BridgeU focusing on how COVID-19 will impact international student enrolments in 2021 and 2021 makes for an interesting read, particularly when it comes to destinations of study. The survey’s respondents are prospective international students across 83 countries (who are planning to enrol in 2020 and 2021) as well as university guidance counsellors from 41 countries. The report also takes into consideration insights from almost 17,000 international high school students. Here are some key findings that we found particularly useful:

    • 42 per cent of respondents who indicated changing their plans are choosing a new international destination for their programme.
    • The following countries, among others, are losing the most international candidates due to the switch: US (-71%), Canada (-58%) and the UK (-56%).
    • Countries gaining international students include Australia (+167%), India (+53%), Germany (+ 53%) and South Korea (+52%).
    • 7 per cent fewer students are shortlisting the US as their top international study destination, however China has a 124% increase, followed by Italy (+83%) and India (53%).
    • The US, Canada and the UK still account for 85 per cent of 2021 prospective international students’ top countries on the BridgeU platform.

    What can universities do to attract more international students? 


    1. Keep things virtual-ish

    From virtual campus tours to online teaching, virtual activities have become part and parcel of the university experience this year. And even when things do return to some semblance of ‘normal’, these virtual methods are likely to stay in some form or another - especially when it comes to recruiting international students. 

    Virtual open days and seminars have the potential to make institutions more desirable for international students, as well as domestic ones. 

    For some prospective international students, travel isn’t possible, pandemic or not. Virtual alternatives can boost inclusivity and diversity by making programmes more flexible and accessible. Now that institutions have the technology in place, it needn’t go underutilised.

    2. Prioritise peer support

    Peer support is incredibly valuable when it comes to helping international students to feel settled and supported in a new environment. And with levels of uncertainty at a record high, it’s become even more important.

    In fact, a report by Intead revealed that 51 per cent of prospective students in Asia said conversing online with a student ambassador had an impact on their decision to apply to an overseas institution. (69 per cent in Africa and 62 per cent in Europe said the same.)

    “Student ambassadors instil confidence in prospective students and provide encouragement along the way. This provides a unique and honest perspective about academics, student life and local culture.” - Insead report

    3. Focus on international student retention

    As well as focusing on how to boost international student enrolments, institutions must focus on retaining international students’ by providing the right support. Strategies like online mentoring and enabling international students to have their voices heard are vital.

    One university that is particularly adept at amplifying international students’ voices is the University of Sheffield in the UK.

    Its ongoing #WeAreInternational campaign is backed by 160 universities, education institutions and international organisations. According to Hobsons’ International Student Survey, 84 per cent of prospective international students say campaigns such as #WeAreInternational positively influenced their perception of the UK.


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    Kate Tattersfield

    Kate Tattersfield is a former teacher turned content creator at FULL FABRIC, specialising in writing for the education sector.

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