SPOTLIGHT ON: Universities and Higher Education – (Part 1)

Continuing with our sector spotlights, Irina Dimitriade (senior research manager at Mustard) shares her insights around the needs and motivation of international students, with the January 2021 intake fast approaching.

2020 has brought change at an extremely rapid pace, forcing us to adapt to a confusing new reality. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been deeply felt across most sectors, with education being one of the most affected. LinkedIn’s latest Workforce Confidence Report puts professionals working in the education sector amongst the least confident about their job, finances and career future.

Looking specifically at higher education, London Economics forecasts UK universities to collectively face a shortfall of at least £2.5 billion in the next year because of projected drops in student enrolment. As a result, higher education will become more and more competitive for providers (as demand shrinks against a fixed supply). Smaller universities might be forced to close, others might merge, some will cut back, but they all face the same challenge – attracting and retaining students in very challenging times.

In the short term, as we’ve entered another national lockdown in England, this might mean focusing efforts on “damage control” – keeping students and staff safe while minimising disruptions to the learning process.

In the long term, however, surviving and flourishing will be dependent on developing a differentiated brand that stands out through a unique proposition. Ascertaining and understanding how pandemic life has shaped the needs, attitudes and expectations of students will be crucial in this process.

Within this series of blog posts, we will review various ways in which a new approach would be most effective for universities to not only survive, but thrive in challenging times. Starting with International students – with the January 2021 intake of international students fast approaching, this blog explores the impact of the current pandemic on this particular audience, and identifies ways in which universities can ensure they remain attractive and relevant in a post-COVID world.

Attracting and retaining international students in 2021 and beyond

International students play a big role in sustaining UK universities, and their financial contribution is considerable. China is the largest source country of international students – in the UK alone, 45% of International Student Visas are granted for Chinese students.

The international student experience, particularly pre-arrival, is a mixture of worries and excitement. I’ve experienced this first hand as an international student myself in Amsterdam and Maastricht, but also when researching international students whilst at Trinity College, Dublin.

International students step into a great unknown, and look to their chosen university to help guide them along the way. A robust body of work already exists on how to navigate these new and exciting territories, and most universities have support services that international students can access. However, the current pandemic has changed the game almost completely. Old worries and uncertainties are replaced by new ones, and the gap in response needs filling quickly!

According to University World News the main worries of prospective Chinese students and their parents have changed, and are now primarily influenced by the current pandemic:

  • Worries around safety abroad, with UK COVID-19 regulations not seen as strict as the Chinese ones.
  • Confusion around how the campus experience will look like and how the online delivery of classes would fit into that. The study outlined an underlying view that an online delivery is inferior to a face to face experience because it doesn’t enable students to experience different living and learning environments, which is what many come for in the first place.
  • Confusion around how student visa applications will work in the context of office closures, online applications and extended deadlines.
  • A lack of clarity on whether discounts in tuition fees would be applied to or extended beyond the pre-sessional English courses, if at all

In a recent survey conducted by the British Council it was suggested that up to 50% of postgraduate Chinese students are planning to defer, and around 20% are likely to change where they go as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The way universities alleviate these new worries will play a big role in the decisions and experiences of international students.

And that’s where independent research comes in! Insight will be needed to gain an up-to-date understanding of how the student mindset has changed and ensure that the higher education offering fits with the different needs and the new motivations.

Mustard has vast experience and knowledge of conducting research within this sector and amongst international student (and prospective student) audiences. A broad range of different research projects can be designed to inform strategies for the short, medium and longer term. For example:

  • Usage and attitude studies. Understanding what international students want and why, what they are planning to do and when, the motivations driving their choices and behaviours, how these have changed as a result of the current pandemic and what emerging attitudes are expected to stick in the future. What will be most important to them in the post-COVID world?
  • Customer journey mapping pre- and post-arrival. Understanding decision-making, behaviours and experiences, thus informing the development or additional measures, services, content and messaging creation in the new ‘normal’. Engaging with all audiences involved in the decision-making process (e.g. students, parents / guardians, advisors, agents) will also be essential!
  • Marketing campaign testing. In light of COVID-19, ensuring messages are understood and make sense, communicate what the audiences want to hear, display empathy and deliver emotional connection is essential. Perhaps also, effectively communicating value-for-money.
  • Proposition and concept testing. Using insight to guide investment strategy. International students might see themselves as being deprived from a face-to-face campus and learning experience, a central part that drives their choice to study abroad. Now could be the time for something new – but what?
  • Brand tracking. Monitoring ad campaign/effectiveness (message and media, providing evidence that activities are working) and tracking brand perceptions amongst priority audiences (and versus competitor institutions) – ensuring the metrics used are relevant to the new set of decision-making criteria.

Now is the time to future-proof the offering for international students, and using the right research tools will enable higher education providers to make the most of these challenging, yet transformative times!

But what about our local UK resident students, you may ask? There will be more on that to follow in Part 2 of sector Spotlight, so watch this space! In the meantime, remember to get in touch for further information or advice on how we can help –