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On Wednesday 8th of April, we held the first in an exclusive series of webinars for Core Members at IDP Connect. The topic was China, in particular the reaction of students to the coronavirus, how IDP staff were supporting them, and how institutions can best position themselves moving forward.
China is a key source of international students for institutions in all destination countries, making up 35% of non-EU international students in the UK in 2018/19. Equally, as the country first affected by the coronavirus outbreak and now emerging out the other side of the epidemic, China is an important case study for institutions as they look for information and data on which to base decisions in the next few weeks and months.
Part 1: China Client Briefing
Leading the briefing on activity in China were Steel Xu, the IDP Country Director for China, and Venice Yun, Product Director for China. The team were keen to highlight how important the collaboration with, and support from, institutions has been in supporting Chinese students through the coronavirus outbreak.
The coronavirus epidemic has presented an unprecedented situation all over the world. Although China may appear to be further on in the process, the situation there continues to change on a near-daily basis.
Venice Yun talked through how the coronavirus affected students, with a focus on how their primary concerns changed as the coronavirus epidemic developed. The response of IDP staff in China was also explained in detail, with particular focus on the use of new technologies and methods of communication in order to ensure students had up to the minute information and support delivered through easily understood mediums and platforms.
The quality of the information delivered to students, and the simplicity through which it is provided, are both very important to students in China, who often feel overwhelmed and confused by the numerous sources of constantly changing information. Feedback from students and parents is that they are even more reliant on IDP to provide them with clarity and simple summaries of the latest information in order to help them make good decisions.
IDP is only able to do this with the support of institutions, and the more we work together through this difficult period the more students feel able to make decisions regarding their further education goals. Equally, IDP staff are able to communicate back to institutions, information from students, revealing their key concerns and questions to help institutions take actions and policies which best support and attract students.
Information was then shared on IDPs new virtual events, discussing how they have been delivered and the positive feedback from students about how they find the new virtual events important and reassuring. The team also explained how information is being shared with students in China, particularly how new channels like WeChat and webinars are being used to enhance communication between students and counsellors.
IDP has also undertaken a variety of student surveys receiving feedback and data on student behaviour, concerns and needs, the findings of which were explored in some detail in the webinar and will be further explored as the series progresses. In particular, there are many questions regarding online tuition that need to be answered and IDP is in the process of developing a specialist survey to further explore student perspectives on online courses and teaching.
The future plan:
IDP’s primary goal is to make our students happy, which we achieve through excellent service and counsellor knowledge.
Venice went on to present IDP’s plans to launch a new service model for UK and Ireland institutions in China which will deliver more transparency regarding things like pricing, process, and the whole communication pattern for both universities and students as well as tailoring the service specifically for students.
Venice explained that students in China often rely heavily on university rankings. At IDP we don’t think that rankings give the whole picture and it is important that our counsellors have the knowledge to really help students find universities that are the best match for them.
To ensure our counsellors are the best informed, IDP are now implementing new training processes that are online, involve interactive quizzes and enable both tailored learning and the training of groups. We can check counsellor knowledge and reward counsellors with certification when they have passed. We would like universities to provide certificates for counsellors who have passed so that they can show students and parents which will increase the trust in IDP and the university who are seen as taking a real interest. It also helps counsellors to identify the key selling points of institutions.
Part 2: Real-time Trends in Student Search
In addition to the on-the-ground experience of Steel and Venice, IDP has been closely analysing data concerning international student behaviour and search trends.
Jonah Duffin, Head of External Relations at IDP Connect, presented findings from what we are seeing on the global platform in terms of student interest, Google Trends and our own unique data.
Using Google Trends to research search trends, the data shows that in the middle of February there was a large drop off in terms of searches for the term “study abroad” as the coronavirus began to increase in both intensity and global spread.
IDP then compared this to the year on year search trends at IDP Connect, monitoring search volumes and traffic on our sites. This data demonstrated that, while search trends for 2020 had been matching or exceeding the previous year until March, after the WHO declaration of the coronavirus as a pandemic, student search traffic declined and performed worse than the previous year. This drop in traffic became even more pronounced when the UK and India were placed into lockdown.
However, just over a week after the lockdowns and subsequent drops in student search volume, traffic began to recover both in terms of related search terms and visitors to IDP student websites. At present, given the data, our working theory is that, now that people are getting used to the new normal their interest in pursuing higher education abroad is returning.
Looking closely at China, who saw the impact of the pandemic much earlier than the rest of the world, there was a substantial drop in traffic during the lockdown, then a real recovery as the Chinese population became used to lockdown which increased up until the WHO declaration of a pandemic when, as students begin to be aware of the coronavirus reaching and greatly affecting destination markets, the traffic dropped off again. This indicates that, while in the short-term interest may decline, it will quickly recover when things calm down and society adjusts.
Jonah went on to explore the data in individual countries including the UK, Ireland, Australia the USA and Canada, highlighting which are recovering faster and suggesting some reasons for these trends.
Beyond online data, Jonah also reviewed an exclusive IDP survey investigating student mindset and decision making over the past 2 weeks. While the webinar went into detail as to the results of the survey, a key finding was that less than 7% of students reported no longer planning to study abroad and nearly 60% reporting they planned to study abroad once the situation has calmed down. The survey results, therefore, supported the online search trends data and website traffic.
The positive takeaway is that there is pent up demand which can be taken advantage of when the borders reopen and IELTS testing resumes. Students still want to study abroad, the details of how and when are what remains uncertain.
There are still a lot of unknowable’s, many variables, and the timing of the next few weeks and months will be critical. If we start to see IELTS testing and borders opening earlier to align with a September and October term starts then the UK, Ireland and Canada are well set up to take advantage of the demand. However, if it all happens later then Australia is put in a more advantageous position.
Whatever the next few weeks have in store, there will still be things that UK and Ireland institutions can do to maximise the potential of the pent-up student demand. How effectively they can do so will depend on their agility, technology, capacity and many other variables, but a real opportunity is on the horizon and institutions should be preparing for it.
A lot is still uncertain, but we must take away the positive that demand is still very much there and will be staying there.