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New survey explores impact of economic pressures on study abroad

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new survey conducted earlier this year finds that large proportions of students in Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, and Indonesia have postponed plans to study abroad due to shifting currency exchange rates
  • Many students in Venezuela and Argentina, meanwhile, said that they would abandon plans to go abroad altogether
  • Changing economic conditions are encouraging students in a number of sending markets to consider more affordable destinations
  • Such variability is a normal condition of the global marketplace and international recruiters are advised to be adaptable to changing conditions and to adopt a long-term view that extends beyond any immediate downturn in a given market

Preliminary findings from a new global student survey from FPP EDU Media and digital marketing firm International Education Advantage (Intead) were presented at the recent NAFSA conference in Denver, Colorado. Conducted earlier this year, the survey drew 40,442 responses from students in 118 countries, with 97% of responses coming from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, Italy, Spain. United Kingdom, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The students, more than half of whom studied at the graduate and post-graduate levels, were asked 14 questions, many of which focused on how changing economic conditions would affect their plans for study abroad.

Know your markets

The presentation in Denver drew in part on a previous FPP/Intead study, “Know Your Neighborhood: International Recruiting Fuelled by Regional Insights,” that illustrates how different students in various markets are in their attitudes and behaviours related to study abroad.

For example, while it is common for international educators to promote popular programmes such as general business or computer science, this wouldn’t resonate as well in Thailand as it would in other countries. That’s because Thais turn out to be most interested in studying the arts, education, human rights, international business, and medicine.

Students also differ in their hopes upon graduation: for example, Argentinians and Panamanians are more interested in bringing their newly acquired skills back home, while Malaysians, Indians, and Venezuelans are interested in staying abroad after their studies.

As international education markets continue to mature worldwide, knowing these tendencies should influence how you position your institution or school for prospective students. For example, if your country has attractive post-graduation work rights available to international students, that might play very well in Malaysia – but it would be less crucial to mention in Argentina. Intead CEO Benjamin Waxman noted how important it is to consider what makes your school unique in a given market, asking, “What can you say about your school that will make students think it is the best choice for them?”

The issue of affordability and the importance of scholarships

The latest Intead/FPP EDU research shows that in certain markets, large proportions of students are better able to afford studying abroad than they were two years ago. These include Algeria (where 81% indicated they could more easily afford to go abroad today), Vietnam (80%), and Colombia (75%). By contrast, only 40% of Italian respondents and 33% of Venezuelans felt that they could more readily afford to study abroad today compared to 2014.

Across the board, Mr Waxman said, students are attracted to the possibility of scholarships. He noted that especially on social media, students are very likely to click on any mention of scholarships, and concluded: “To the extent that you can use scholarships in your marketing tools, you should.” The research shows that in some markets – Venezuela, Brazil, and Malaysia – students are particularly influenced by a lack of scholarships for a given school or destination.

Unfavourable shifts in currency exchange rates can also have a profound effect on students in some markets. In Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, and Indonesia, large proportions have postponed plans to study abroad for this reason, while in Venezuela and Argentina, many students said they would abandon plans to go abroad altogether.

Meanwhile, significant numbers of students in Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, and Malaysia said they are considering countries other than the US as their currency depreciates against the US dollar. Overall, nearly three in ten survey respondents (27%) indicated that they are planning on studying in a country other than the US “where my funds have more value.”

These currency effects open up an opportunity for schools from other English-speaking destination markets, and last year for example, we saw destinations such as Canada, Malta, South Africa, and Ireland gain traction in Brazil as the real declined sharply relative to other major world currencies.

This is not to say, however, that providers in more expensive destinations don’t have strategic options as well. US schools, for example, could adapt to sharper currency devaluations in some sending markets by offering tuition discounts, rebates, or more flexible payment schedules, or by targeting scholarships or other financial aid to students in those countries.

Tuition discounting, while widespread in some market segments, is often criticised as a short-sighted choice. We do, however, tend to see a spike in discounting activity in response to global economic pressures; in fall 2015, for example, there were reports of some language programme providers aggressively discounting in order to attract students in markets affected by currency devaluations.

Accept that economic crises are normal, and adapt strategies when necessary

The audience listening to the FPP/Intead presentation at NAFSA also heard that economic crises, or other significant market disruptions, are a constant factor in international education, and looked at a slide deck that outlined dozens of economic downturns that have occurred since the 1970s.

The reality, conference attendees were advised, is that “crisis is normal,” and international educators must be prepared for the eventuality that important sending markets will at one point or another will enter difficult times.

Rather than stepping back from troubled markets in those moments, the presenters urged calm and suggested instead that recruiters adopt a more balanced and adaptive approach:

  1. Think in a different way: change your approach – the current one probably won’t be as effective as it has been, but another strategy might be;
  2. Collect information – don’t rely on external media only, as such media is often overly dramatic, so make sure to get information from trusted local partners and other sources to get a real feeling for what’s going on;
  3. Look for opportunities: A markets may shrink during crisis but this doesn’t mean that the right idea is to abandon the market.

Implicit in these suggestions is the idea that when a market is affected by an economic downturn, some institutions will pull back and this can reduce the competition for students – which can in turn open up potential market share gains for those who stay the course. Eventually of course the crisis will pass. And maintaining or expanding a presence in a market when it is going through tough times can be a strategic choice that will pay off over the long term once a recovery is underway and the underlying strengths that drew you to the market in the first place – economic fundamentals, demographics, supply-demand dynamics – begin to assert themselves again.

The FPP/Intead presentation underlined both (1) the profound effect that currency rates can have on international student mobility, and (2) the reality that schools have tools at their disposal to adapt to an economic crisis – and even to use it to deepen branding and long-term enrolments. The key is to understand the effect an economic crisis is having on students, and then to use data – and local sources – to develop strategies to maintain, or increase, market share.

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