Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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Are students willing to begin degree studies online in September?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Student survey data through the second half of May shows a modest strengthening in interest in online studies
  • Students are more likely to be open to online learning if they see it as a path to on-campus study
  • Most students, however, believe that fees for online courses should be discounted from normal tuition rates

The “on-campus or online” question moved forward over the last couple of weeks with news that the University of Cambridge will deliver all lectures online until summer 2021, the California State University system will deliver most classes online this fall, and other major research institutions in Canada, including McGill University and the University of British Columbia, will also rely on online delivery in September.

There are two significant questions lurking behind each institution’s decision about programme delivery for the coming academic year. First, will students be more likely to defer September enrolment if they are required to begin their studies online? And will students expect (or demand) a discounted tuition rate for online courses?

A continuing student survey from QS has some updated insights on these questions through the second half of May. We have reported on the QS survey previously. Its May data release accumulates responses from nearly 30,000 incoming and prospective international students, and includes some additional detail on student perspectives on online study.

Openness to online study

The May data reflects a marginal increase in student interest in online study. Six in ten students (60%) expressed some level of interest (from “extremely” to “slightly”) in online learning for the coming academic year. This compares to the 58% who said they would be interested in the April survey cycle, and the 42% who then said they were “not at all interested”.

How interested would you be in studying your degree online because of the coronavirus? Source: QS
How interested would you be in studying your degree online because of the coronavirus? Source: QS

In broad terms, the QS data reflects a growing student openness to online study as we draw closer to the start of the next academic year. However, we also see a significant proportion of respondents (roughly four in ten) who are not prepared to follow online courses, and that will be more likely to defer enrolment to 2021 or make other study arrangements.

This pattern reflects in another recent student survey from IDP where 31% of respondents said they would be prepared to begin their studies online with the hopes of eventually travelling to a physical campus, but nearly four in ten (38%) said they would rather defer their start date to be able to study face-to-face.

If starting your studies this academic year meant doing the beginning of your course online, would you be interested in this? Source: QS
If starting your studies this academic year meant doing the beginning of your course online, would you be interested in this? Source: QS

Start online, transition to campus

The QS survey included some new questions for May that prompted students to consider whether they would be prepared to begin their studies online (and then transition to campus) if that was the only way to pursue their studies in the coming academic year.

When given that scenario, nearly half (46%) said they would be interested in online courses. Another 27% were unsure and only 26% said they would not be interested at all.

What is the right price?

Most respondents (77%) felt that fees for online courses should be discounted from normal face-to-face tuition rates, which, QS notes, “demonstrates the value that prospective international students assign to on-campus education.”

Students were also asked what level of discount would be appropriate for online study, and there the responses were more mixed (as reflected in the cart below). The report notes though that, “Given the higher level of responses across the discount range of 21-50%, it is clear that prospective international students expect a significant discount.”

How much do you think tuition fees should be discounted by during online studies until you're able to start face-to-face classes? Source: QS
How much do you think tuition fees should be discounted by during online studies until you’re able to start face-to-face classes? Source: QS

For additional background, please see:


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