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UK universities face a shortfall of “at least £463 million” in 2020/21

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new British Council survey conducted in eight East Asian markets shows that large numbers of students are uncertain about whether they will delay or cancel their study plans in light of COVID-19
  • The potential economic impact is estimated to be £463 million in lost tuition and living expenses
  • The British Council says that it may be three or four years before the UK’s university sector recovers from the impact of the pandemic

A new survey from the British Council has found that there will likely be 14,000 fewer new students from East Asia in UK higher education in 2020/21 compared to last year, and that this will equate to a loss of £463 million in tuition and living expenses. More than 15,500 students from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam participated in the survey. All respondents had plans to study abroad, though not all were sure when or if they could follow through on their plans due to the broad effects of COVID-19. The survey was conducted from 19 April through 15 May 2020.

If 14,000 fewer students come from East Asia, this would amount to a 20% decline from this key sending region, which in turn would represent a 12% reduction in UK universities’ overall international student population for the coming academic year. Some universities are anticipating a steeper drop of up to 50% of international students. Whatever the extent of the shortfall this year, the British Council says that it may be three or four years before the UK’s university sector recovers from the impact of COVID-19.

Uncertainty abounds

Of the thousands of students from the eight East Asian markets surveyed, nearly 3 in 10 (29%) said that they are at least “somewhat likely” to delay their start date or cancel their overseas study plans for the 2020/21 academic year. Another 35% felt unsure about how to answer, presumably given the uncertainty still looming for the rest of this year; this segment said they were “neither likely nor unlikely” to delay or cancel study plans. Altogether, that’s close to two-thirds of the surveyed East Asian market feeling shaky on their ability to follow through on study plans.

Postgraduates prefer to wait till January

Given the choice of starting classes online in September 2020 or delaying till January for a face-to-face experience, a solid majority (63%) of postgraduate students said they’d prefer to wait until 2021. Undergraduate students were more mixed: the proportion preferring to wait until January was larger, at 46%, than the one who would start in September (37%), but not by a large margin.

The all-important market of China is notably unstable for UK universities: 4 in 10 Chinese with study plans say they are “neither likely or unlikely” to cancel these plans. Warning signs are also present in Indonesia and Taiwan, where almost half of surveyed postgraduate students said they are “at least somewhat likely to delay or cancel their overseas study plans.”

Commenting on the results, survey report author Matt Durnin underlined the importance of UK universities communicating clearly and well with prospective students:

“Prospective international students are facing a lot of uncertainty, but many are clearly trying to find a way to keep their overseas study plans. There is a window of opportunity over the next two months to create a greater sense of certainty about the upcoming academic year. If responses are clear and quickly communicated to prospective students, UK higher education will face a much more manageable scenario.”

Government promises to support students

Last week, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan spoke at the Going Global summit hosted by the British Council, and she underlined the government’s recognition of how important international students are to the country, economically as well as culturally. Ms Donelan said that as universities work at finding ways to deliver courses safely and to a high-quality standard, the government will also be working very hard “to ensure that international students do not have to jump through hoops to come here and that immigration regulations are as flexible as they can be.”

She also reminded the audience of the important announcement last fall of the “Graduate Route,” which allows international students who’ve finished degrees at UK universities to remain in the country for up to two years of work experience.

Ms Donelan emphasised “I want to be utterly clear – this means students who start UK courses from this autumn onwards will be able to benefit from this, and we look forward to them doing so.”

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