Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
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19th May 2021

New survey updates agent outlook into 2022

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Agents report intense engagement with both students and educators as we move into the second half of 2021
  • Most are continuing to establish new partnerships with educators
  • Most agents are actively recruiting today and a majority of survey respondents anticipate business recovery into 2022

A new ICEF Agent Voice survey among over 1200 agents from 108 countries finds that international agents are highly active in their roles during the pandemic despite various levels of travel restrictions for top destination countries. Most are directing their students towards Canada and the UK, but demand appears to be rising for the US as well.

Agents responding to the survey – which has been open since January 2021 – primarily represented students in Asia (44%), Africa (13%), and Latin America (13%).

Agents are working steadily

Most agents are in regular touch with students intending to study abroad; 49% reported that communications with students have gone up since last year and another 16% said they are about the same. A strong majority said they have either increased or maintained their communications with educators as well and 74% have actually entered into new partnerships with schools/universities.

At this stage, only a small proportion of agents (13%) report recruiting via online application platforms or agent aggregators. to help them recruit students and send applications to schools and universities.

“How are you presently recruiting students and sending applications for education programmes?”

With so much uncertainty, hours are long

Because of the pandemic, agents continue to report cancellations as well as large volumes of deferrals to fall 2021. Nearly four in ten (39%) said their students have switched to another destination. Agents’ work has intensified, as students’ decision-making process is not surprisingly more complicated and takes longer.

ICEF's director of agent relations, Tiffany Egler, adds, "Many responses indicated a wait and watch scenario for study abroad plans, with students looking to other destinations that become available first or simply continue their education online at home until travel opportunities become available. With many borders still closed and regulations continually changing, the decision-making process has become much longer."

Border closures and visa issues

Agents said that the biggest obstacles for students are border closures (77%) as well as visa processing being either delayed or suspended (69%). More than four in ten said that students are experiencing challenges with their classes having moved online (e.g., issues with time differences, online fatigue, and unstable Internet connections) as well as financial difficulties.

Concerns around insurance, health, and accommodation are top of mind for students right now, as are the availability of flights and the prospect of rigid quarantine requirements.

“What study challenges are your students currently experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?”

Recruiting for hybrid programmes is now routine

Looking at the year ahead, agents said that hybrid (50%) – a mix of online and in-person instruction – as well as purely online (33%) options are the new normal in 2021. However, when asked which kinds of programmes they are currently presenting to students, courses delivered online were mentioned by less than 10%.

In general, levels of active recruiting are high, especially for pathway/undergraduate programmes, where only 14% of agents say they are not currently recruiting for this level. Activity tapers off for language courses and schools (35% and 57% not recruiting at this time, respectively).

Canada and the UK are the hotspots

In terms of where agents are recruiting, Canada is the most commonly cited destination, along with the UK when it comes to language courses, pathway/undergraduate programmes, and to a slightly lesser extent, graduate studies. Agents and students usually consider Australia a compelling destination, but Australia’s closed borders mean that there is a much lower level of recruiting for this country than normal.

The US trails Canada and the UK in terms of where agents are recruiting, but agents also report that demand for the US is beginning to increase, as you can see from the following slide:

“As a result of ongoing border closures, local restrictions and general concerns for some markets, have you seen an increased interest in the following study destinations for traditional in-person only programme?"

Most anticipate recovery in 2022

Most (61%) believe that international student enrolments will be lower in 2021 than in 2019, but they also indicate that student demand is high. If travel restrictions ease considerably and vaccine rollouts speed up, agents’ expectations for enrolments may well change in the coming months. In addition, high-quality hybrid and online options may tempt a wider spectrum of students to study with a foreign institution.

Overall, agents are quite optimistic about their business recovering in late 2021 (24%) or early 2022 (53%) – which is an important reflection of the demand they are seeing from students for study abroad in the near future.

What factors are driving recruitment in 2021?

Agents report a variety of factors that help with their recruiting this year. For language courses, the most helpful factor is when schools offer flexible rebooking/cancellation policies (52%), likely a result of students wanting to wait until they can study a language in a country and its culture.

“Which of these factors will support recruitment and efforts and help drive language study enrolments in 2021?”

For higher education, scholarships and financial aid are the most important drivers of results, and flexibility around admission requirements is also a great help. The following slide depicts top factors for the undergraduate level, but the trends are very similar when it comes to vocational and grad school programmes.

“Which of these factors will support recruitment and efforts and help drive enrolment in foundation, pathway, and undergraduate studies in 2021?”

On the question of financial incentives for students, agents reported that most educators offered some discount because of their programmes moving online, while 27% did not. The largest proportion (31%) said that the educators they have been working with offered more than a 20% discount on programmes that had moved online.

“What, if any, tuition decrease was provided from education institutions you work with to students for online delivery?”

For additional background, please see:

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