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Since the outbreak of the pandemic, border closures in the Southern Hemisphere and the introduction of new stringent, often confusing and costly immigration processes for international students in Canada, the UK and the USA have all impacted international student demand.  

However, recent destination country policy plans and announcements may be set to disrupt the status quo of international student demand yet again.  

Our International Student Crossroads Research series (Crossroads ICrossroads IICrossroads III and the latest Crossroads IV) revealed students are willing to change destination countries for face-to-face teaching, but also identified that the majority are also willing to get vaccinated and quarantine in order to learn in their chosen destination.  

This article will analyse the recent policy announcements in the context of what our international student surveys and live student data reveals about international student demand to highlight which key trends to watch out for and predict how destination demand may shift in the coming months.  

We will explore: 

  • What IDP Connects surveys have revealed about student priorities and destination intent 

  • The key recent policy changes announced by each of the four destinations 

  • What our student data is suggesting about the impact of these policy announcements, and the implications for the global landscape of student demand

The Context: Student priorities and intent

According to the previous findings of our Crossroads IV research, financial concerns, perceptions that COVID-19 had been handled poorly, and the view that obtaining a visa was too difficult, made up the top five reasons cited by students for not studying at their first-choice destination (Note: For this part of the survey, “not being able to study face-to-face” or “not being able to commence studies in the destination country” were not provided as options).  Students were, however, willing to quarantine and get vaccinated in order to commence their studies in their destination country.  

The majority of survey respondents also reported that they would be willing to change study destinations if doing so would enable them to receive in-country, face-to-face teaching in the destination country. This has significant implications regarding how demand for study destinations may change if students perceive that entering a destination country to study will become easier. However, which study destination students were most likely to “switch to” as a second choice varied depending on the first-choice destination, as shown in the graph below: 

The extent to which these second-choice preferences hold true several months on, as well as the reasons why specific destinations are being overlooked and what they can do about it, will be explored in greater detail in the upcoming Crossroads V due to be released XXXX. The fifth instalment of the research series will also focus on how international applicants and offer holders perceive destination countries, their attitudes towards the next intake, the details of whether and how they would be willing to quarantine, their vaccination status and how offers of vaccinations in-country are affecting their decision making. This latest survey will build on the previous four to deliver a comprehensive understanding of international student concerns and motivations to help guide both national policies and institutional messaging. Until then, this article will break down the recent policy changes of each of the top four destination countries in relation to student priorities to predict what shifts in student demand may occur and which trends institutions should watch out for.

Australia’s policy changes

Australia has imposed a closed-borders policy from early on in the pandemic. While online learning provisions have been introduced by Australia, including in-home-country learning hubs and reassurances of the validity of online studies and post-study work, given international students strong prioritisation on in-country learning it is perhaps unsurprising that Australia has seen a decline in international student enrolments over the past year. 

However, in the Crossroads IV survey data Australia remained the top second-choice destination and was the first-choice destination of the majority of our survey respondents, indicating a strong demand which may come to the fore when Australia’s borders reopen. At the time of writing significant areas of Australia, including several states, are under lockdown restrictions due to recent outbreaks of the Delta variant. For states that are not in lockdown, there are many travel restrictions still in place regarding those states still under restrictions. 

However, there are signs of good news for international students and Australian institutions, and potential cause for concern for competitor destinations, in regards to how the future may look for Australia’s international student offering. Prior to the current lockdowns, key states in Australia had submitted proposals for pilot schemes which would allow international students to enter Australia, some of which have been preliminarily approved and may come into force once current lockdown restrictions have been lifted.  

Other key states are also continuing to develop plans for international student pilot schemes during the lockdowns, suggesting a forward-looking positive approach with regards to international students. This focus on developing pilot schemes indicates that Australia may be coming increasingly close to introducing pathways into the country for international students.  

In plans approved on June 18th by the Australian federal government, 160 international students per fortnight will be permitted to enter South Australia and quarantine for two weeks at a specially selected facility.  

A similar plan has been proposed by New South Wales that would allow an initial 250 international students a fortnight to be admitted into the region. The overseas students would be brought into the state on charter flights every fortnight with the intent to scale-up to 500 students a fortnight by the end of the year. Under the plan, students ae expected to cover the costs of their flights while universities would be responsible for funding the students’ quarantine bill for staying at a special accommodation facility. 

The state of Victoria is still in the process of developing plans that would operate a different model to New South Wales and South Australia in regards to where students would quarantine. The Victoria state model would require that international students enter the state via hotel quarantine as the Victorian government has deemed purpose-built student accommodation unsuitable for quarantine. 

The prospect of “travel bubbles” with specific countries, including Singapore, South Korea and Japan, is also on the table but are expected to require the establishment of compatible vaccination recognition systems in addition to appropriate conditions within Australia being established. The precedent for quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia has already been set, so while paused at the time of this publication due to the COVID-19 outbreaks could be reintroduced when the situation stabilises.  

Should Australia’s pilot schemes be introduced and prove successful in the future, and Australia’s vaccination program pick up speed, Australia may see a strong recovery of demand which could have a significant impact on demand to the other destination countries.  

The re-opening of Australia is likely to be particularly felt by the UK and Canada, who were the top second choice picks for students whose first choice was Australia and for whom Australia was the top second choice institution by students who had picked them as a first choice. Australia, along with competitor destinations, will need to monitor demand trends when the pilot schemes are implemented in order to predict the speed of Australia’s bounce-back and plan accordingly.

Canada’s policy changes

However, given that Australia is also the top second-choice destination for students whose first choice is Canada, this suggests that Canada may be most affected by Australia’s borders reopening, particularly if Australia is seen to offer a high-quality student experience that competes with the Canadian institutions’ offering.  

Since October 2020 international students have been able to enter Canada in order to study as long as they meet specific requirements. The conditions which students needed to meet included: being accepted to study in Canada by an institution that has a COVID-19 readiness plan approved by their local provincial or territorial government; having an approved study permit (regardless of the date of their letter of introduction); successfully obtaining a student VISA; completing COVID-19 tests before and after arrival in Canada: and completing a mandatory 14-day quarantine period upon arrival in Canada. The complexity of this process and the costs incurred in COVID-19 tests and quarantine are likely to have been significant factors in discouraging prospective students from beginning their studies in Canada.  

Some good news for Canadian institutions, and students wishing to study in Canada, is that the Canadian Public Health Agency has recently announced a relaxation of entry requirements into Canada for some international students. From July 5th, students who have been fully inoculated by one of the vaccines officially recognised by Canada (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, or Johnson & Johnson) and that show no symptoms will no longer need to quarantine upon arrival in a government-authorised hotel or take a COVID-19 test upon arrival.  

Students will still be required to provide an adequate quarantine plan in case they do not meet the new quarantine exemptions and will still be required to complete the testing requirements prior to entry. However, this removal of a required quarantine will dramatically reduce the cost of travelling to Canada for students who have a vaccine, as they will no longer need to pay for specific government-approved accommodation. 

While this is good news for vaccinated students, vaccination rates are low in many countries, such as India where less than 10% of the population is fully vaccinated. Furthermore, in other high volume source countries like China it is common for students to be vaccinated with a vaccine not recognised by Canada. Students who fall into these categories and whose home countries are not on a restrictive travel list can still enter Canada, but will be required to quarantine upon arrival in addition to the other COVID-19 travel requirements.  

It has also been confirmed that students who have not been vaccinated prior to arrival will be able to receive a vaccine once they have arrived in Canada, which while it does not reduce the costs upon entry may act as an incentive for prospective students. The Crossroads V survey indicated that students see destination countries offering international the option of being vaccinated as a positive draw and it is likely that this move will be shown to have further enhanced Canada’s perceptions among applicants and offer holders in Crossroads V. The IRCC has also stated that students who submitted a complete study permit application by May 15th should get a decision by August 6th.  

In the context of Australia’s popularity as a second-choice destination, the more Canada can ease the costs of studying in Canada and the complexity around obtaining a visa and entering the country, the more Canada will be able to remain competitive. How well it is able to meet these requirements, and communicate them to the market, will also determine how much of a threat Canada will be to all three competitor destination markets and how far Canada can build on its international recruitment successes thus far. The results of Crossroads V will shed light on how well these new policies have filtered through to the international student market and the impact they are having on student decision making, key information for both Canadian institutions and those in competitor destinations. 

The UK's policy changes

Through remaining open to international students during the pandemic, the UK has been able to perform relatively well in international recruitment and improved in terms of international student perceptions over the course of the four surveys. This has been further enhanced by the success of the vaccine rollout across the UK, which has further enhanced how international students view the UK as a study destination. 

The UK government has published a blog outlining the UK’s policy regarding international students and vaccines, assuring students that they do not need to be vaccinated to arrive in the country, that they have the option to be vaccinated once they are in the UK, espousing the virtues of the NHS and reassuring students that life in the UK is beginning to open up.  

While it is positive that the UK has improved in the eyes of international students and remains open, there are challenges to the UK which could lead to a decline in demand. The Crossroads IV survey revealed that Australia and Canada were the top second-choice destinations for students whose first choice was the UK (24% and 22% respectively). With both countries announcing policy changes that are improving the opportunities for international students to study in-country and face-to-face the UK may be particularly affected by any resulting increases in demand for those two destinations. 

Furthermore, while travel from India (a key source market for the UK) remains banned and with in-country office closures reducing the ability of Indian students to obtain required documents and complete visa applications, the UK is vulnerable to market fluctuations. The UK must continue to improve the ease of travelling to the UK, promote the country’s academic and student support offerings, and investigate how it can ease the financial burdens of COVID-19 related travel immigration costs. 

Crossroads V will reveal the extent to which the UK’s offer of a vaccination has improved international student perceptions, in addition to whether the UK’s continued successful rollout of the vaccine and relaxation of COVID-19 rules enhancing student perceptions of the destination country as they see a “return to normal”, or whether this is being tempered by the significant rise in COVID-19 cases in the country as well as the uncertainty and costs associated with travel and quarantine requirements for the UK. 

The USA's policy changes

At the beginning of the pandemic there was considerable uncertainty for international students, including temporary bans on students being able to enter the country and the loss of visas if courses were delivered entirely online. This uncertainty, combined with a perceived poor handling of the pandemic by the US government, led to negative international student perceptions. However, the US has since improved both the clarity of its policies on international students, and the terms such as allowing students with valid study visas to enter the US. Perceptions of the US have also improved since the US presidential election and President Biden taking office, as demonstrated in our specialist US research perceptions report

However, the US was not the second-choice destination of any of its competitor destinations in our survey and a considerable proportion of students who had the USA as a first choice had selected Canada as a second choice. It seems likely, therefore, that should Canada’s new policy changes regarding the ease of entry into the country to study be well received by the market it may see an increase in interest at the expense of the USA.  

Fortunately, the USA has also introduced new policies this year that may improve its appeal to international students. Key among these policy announcements is the recent extension to the distance learning guidance on its Student Exchange Visitor Program so that M-1 and F-1 students that enrolled at a US institution from March 9th 2020, are currently actively enrolled with valid visas and have studies aspects of their course online outside of the USA due to COVID-19 will be allowed to re-enter America to continue their studies.  

Importantly, new international students will also now be permitted to enter the USA for their studies, even if their course is being delivered partially online if the course has some component of in-person study.  

In recognition of the negative impact of uncertainty over policies and their duration, the US government has confirmed that the current guidance regarding the above will remain in effect for the 2021-22 academic cycle. Institutions should therefore make sure to communicate this relative stability in government policy to students who have experienced over a year of policy uncertainty.  

Given the strong emphasis international students place on desiring in-person, in-country tuition, there will likely be a positive response to the news that the Department of State has issued new guidance for students travelling to the US to study from nations where travel restrictions currently ban them from entry into the country.  

The US will now allow affected students who qualified for the F or M study visas to enter the country under a new “national interest exemption” coming onto force from August 1st 2021 for students whose course begins after the aforementioned date. This includes students from India, however given the current ban on travel from India (which has been extended) students from that country may struggle to find travel options for their journey and face the additional challenge of obtaining a visa in the context of application centre closures due to the pandemic.  

Students are not required to have had a vaccine in order to travel to the USA for their studies, but some individual American institutions are imposing requirements for students to receive in-person teaching on campus.  

The USA’s improved perceptions in the eyes of international students, and these recent policy concessions, should strengthen the country’s appeal across source markets. However, should Australia’s policies be successful a key in-person competitor will re-enter the market. Furthermore, with Canada the top second-choice destination for the USA by a significant 40%, if Canada continues to make it easier for international students to enter the country, and effectively communicates progress to the market, the US risks losing significant market share to its North American competitor.  

With no clear policy on vaccinations, a key aspect of student decision making, and a variety of obstacles in regards to visas, travel to the US, and quarantine on arrival, how perceptions of the USA have shifted in relation to the other destinations, and what the USA should prioritise moving forward, will be a particularly interesting element of the Crossroads V research. 

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CP - Image - Headshot - Ella Grimwade - UK
Ella Grimwade19 July 2021