International Higher Education

International student crossroads, demand for on-campus education amidst COVID-19

After undertaking the largest survey of international higher education applicants and offer-holders during the coronavirus pandemic, last week IDP Connect revealed some of the major trends in the concerns, perspectives and intentions of prospective students all over the world.

Some of the broader, “headline” trends were shared with the UK education press, appearing in The PIE, and THE as well as on our own website. However, a closer and more nuanced exploration of the survey’s results reveals much more.

The details of in-depth analysis by IDP Connects data and sector experts were later shared in exclusive Core Partner webinars. Core members can access recordings of these webinars in the Core Member sections of their MY IDP account. Here, we will provide a summary of what was covered in the webinar and share some of the key findings. IDP is also launching an exclusive new survey dashboard for partners with an IQ subscription that will enable further breakdowns and exploration of the survey data personalised to each institution’s individual priorities, needs and interests. For more information on this valuable new service, partners should reach out to:

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Survey Overview

Before diving into the results, it is important to understand how the survey was conducted and exactly who responded. A brief overview is as follows:

  • –  The survey was conducted between 17th – 28th of April (12 days)
  • –  The survey took approximately 12 minutes to complete
  • –  6,954 applicants and offer holders participated
  • –  Respondents represented 72 nationalities
  • –  More than half, 56%, of respondents were from India
  • –  Respondents were applicants or offer holders for 511 institutions across Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland, and the USA
  • –  78% of respondents were aged between 22-29
  • –  91% of respondents were still in their home country
  • –  64% of respondents had applied for Postgraduate studies, 20% for undergraduate, and 7% for vocational courses


Student concerns

The key takeaway from our survey was the overwhelming majority of applicants and offer holders still intended to continue with their international study plans as originally intended.

For the minority of students who responded that they were not planning to commence with their studies as planned, the biggest reason was uncertainty over whether they would be able to leave their home country due to international travel bans. For students from China, Thailand and Sri Lanka, this reason was equaled or slightly exceeded by students feeling it was not safe to travel to destination countries in the context of COVID-19. In China, 31% of students who were no longer planning to continue with their studies as planned also cited feeling unwelcome as an international student, indicating that Chinese students may be experiencing or expecting hostility from destination countries.

When broken down by destination country instead of origin country, the same two reasons for changing study plans came out on top. However, fears over the safety of travelling to the students’ destination country were much higher for the United States, 50%, and the UK, 56%, than for other destination countries. Clearly the UK and the United States efforts to control the virus have been more negatively perceived by international students.

A full breakdown of all the different reasons why those students who have changed their study plans have done so, grouped by origin country and destination country, was explored in the presentation.

There was also a surprising difference between Russel Group and Go8 institutions compared to other institutions. For most institutions, 71% of respondents reported intending to continue with their studies as planned, 25% being undecided, and 4% having chosen not to continue with their original study plans. However, for Russel Group and Go8 institutions, only 58% of respondents reported continuing with their study plans, 36% reported being uncertain and 6% having decided to change their plans. The reasons why Russel Group and Go8 institutions are faring less well regarding retaining applicants and offer holders are being explored by IDP Connect’s experts, with the expectation that an underlying factor explaining this discrepancy will come to light.

How have perspectives of destination countries changed?

Overall, 80% of respondents to the survey reported that their perception of their destination country had not changed during COVID-19. However, how much student perceptions of destination countries had changed varied considerably between countries.  student views on Canada and New Zealand were reported to have changed less than average, while other countries like the UK had a much larger proportion of students that had changed their perceptions of the country at 72%.

With regards to whether these changes in perspective were positive or negative, the breakdown seemed to depend largely on how well a country was faring with regards to COVID-19. In those students whose perceptions had changed, New Zealand and Canada had benefited from predominantly improved perceptions whereas the UK and USA had generally suffered from poorer perceptions. The specifics of how much and in what way perceptions have changed was explored in greater detail in the webinar.

Student Motivations

When asked about their motivations for studying in a particular country, the quality of teaching came out as the top reason at 44%.  The second strongest reason for studying in a specific destination, at 31%, was because that destination was home to the students preferred institution, while the safety of the destination country was the third most important deciding factor at 29%.

Regarding their choice of institutions, priorities were much more closely ranked, with course and subject preferences emerging as the main factor in student choices at 26%, followed by both the ranking and reputation of an institution at 24% each.

This picture became a lot more complex when broken down by country. For the UK, the subject or course being offered was the primary reason for students choosing to study in the UK by a considerable margin, followed by the institution itself and then the appeals of the country. This indicates that the UK as a nation is not as appealing to students as other destination countries, but that fortunately the strength of the courses, subjects and to a lesser extent the institutions, offered still draw students in. This has implications for the marketing and messaging put out by UK institutions as they attempt to appeal to prospective international students.


Views on deferral, online delivery and other options

68% of respondents whose courses were due to commence between September and December 2020 reported expecting to begin their courses as planned. This increased to 77% of respondents if their course was due to commence between January and April 2021.

69% of students reported being intent to receive face to face teaching with deferral to achieve this being the most popular choice at 38% of respondents and starting online to transition to face-to-face reported as the second most acceptable option with 31% of respondents.

54% of students were willing to defer for between 3 months and a year, if it would result in face-to-face tuition. Postgraduate applicants were willing to defer their studies for longer than undergraduate applicants, who expressed much higher rates of uncertainty over how long they were willing to defer.  Undergraduate applicants were also more willing to start with online tuition if it meant transitioning to face-to-face, which likely reflects the fact that undergraduate courses are longer and so would still afford students considerable face-to-face international studying. The exact stats of how long students were willing to defer for were broken down in the webinar presentation.

The key concern over online teaching across destination countries was that it did not provide students with the international exposure of on-campus, in-person international education. The standard of online courses compared to traditional delivery also ranked highly but a broad spectrum of concerns were expressed, the details of which can be found in the webinar or explored within the IQ survey dashboard. While there is little that institutions can do regarding international exposure, reassuring students of the quality of online courses may be key in retaining applicants if borders remain closed.

Respondents also indicated that destination mattered very little to them in comparison to the delivery of face-to-face teaching and that many did not feel sufficient loyalty to a country or institution to pass up changing destination if an alternative institution or country were able to offer face to face learning and their original offer was not. On average, 20% of respondents reported a strong intent to change their destination should face-to-face learning be offered as the alternative, with postgraduate applicants being even more likely to change. Applicants to UK institutions reported an even higher likelihood of changing course should face-to-face teaching be offered elsewhere.

The breakdown of how likely students were to change destination, broken down by type of course, origin country and destination country, were all explored in detail in the webinar presentation and can be found in the new IQ survey dashboard.

The webinar then shared with attendees the precise needs and expectations of students with regards to how they want their institutions to engage and communicate with them, highlighting what information and support would be best received and influence a student’s likelihood to continue with their studies, or change institution. This included both a breakdown of preferred communication mediums and the type of content, information and support that students required. To uncover this essential information, along with much greater detail on all of the above, Core Members can access the webinar recording and presentation in their MY IDP Core Members area, while IQ subscribers can explore the raw data themselves via the new IQ survey dashboard.

For more information on upgrading to a Core Membership or the IQ subscription service, partners are invited to contact us on:

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