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Year in review: What we learned in 2021

In a moment where we are all looking forward – to further recovery, border openings, and something “closer to normal” – we are first going to mark the turning of the calendar with an annual tradition here at ICEF Monitor: a look back at the year gone by.

To say the least, there are some important insights to be drawn from our shared experience in 2021, and we have noted down a few of the key points below.

Our sector is resilient

The evidence continues to mount on this front, whether in the form of swift pivots to online learning (and then back to in-person or hybrid), the introduction of new business models, or innovative strategies to adapt and survive during the sustained disruption of the pandemic.

We are all still learning how to apply some of the lessons learned during COVID but there is plenty of indication already that they are being reflected in new programme options for international students, new ways of engaging with and recruiting students, and even a reconsideration of the student markets we are able to reach with our programmes and services.

In-person is still key

The firsthand experience of study abroad – and everything that suggests in terms of living new cultures, forming friendships, and building networks abroad – remains a key driver of student demand.

We all have, of necessity, become much more comfortable with conducting business, maintaining relationships, and teaching and learning online. But as we have seen this year, student decision making is also heavily informed by the opportunity to attend on campus or in school. The same could be said of course of many of the partnerships and working relationships that underpin our industry, and we certainly saw evidence of the importance of nurturing those important connections face-to-face this year as well.

Affordability and employment more important than ever

The pandemic has triggered some new trends in our industry, but in other respects it has been an accelerator of longer-terms trends that we have been observing for some time.

We understand the employment opportunities — both during study and after graduation — are major factors in student decision making. But what we also see this year is that students are looking more closely at programme costs, in part because of the economic toll that the pandemic has taken on families round the world.

That consideration of cost belongs in the larger context of the return on investment that students can anticipate from their studies abroad, as reflected in things like post-graduation employment and settlement opportunities, career supports, and graduate outcomes.

Vaccines a building block for mobility

Access to vaccines for students (whether in their home countries or study destinations), vaccine acceptance (on the part of host countries), and related border restrictions will be some of the key drivers of student mobility in 2022.

Major destinations, including the UK, Australia, and Canada, have all moved in recent months to formally accept vaccines that are widely used in China and India. This is an important step to restoring more widespread student movement from those key sending markets, but the issue remains in play in many other countries.

Consider, for example, the situation in Russia, where the lack of international approvals for the Sputnik V COVID vaccine means that most outbound Russian students will need to observe testing and quarantine protocols on arrival at their study destinations, and may need additional support during the early weeks after arrival.

What this illustrates is that we can now add access and acceptance of vaccines to our list of key practical factors for student movement, alongside foreign exchange rates, international flight services, and visa processing.

You are only as good as your support services

Safety and wellness have long been top-of-mind concerns for international students and their families. But this is another aspect of student decision making that is now even more important this year.

This is reflected in part in a greater focus on student support services offered by institutions and schools, especially with respect to arrival settlement, supports, mental health services and career supports.

If anything, there will be greater demands on educators in this respect in the year ahead, and those that can excel in some of these key support areas will have a clear competitive advantage.

Back to looking forward

Needless to say, we are all still learning the lessons the pandemic has to teach us. We will continue to see a pattern of recovery in 2022, with some important shifts in demands, and some equally important changes in the tools and strategies we use for international student recruitment.

We can expect that 2022 will be another year of adaptation – and adaptive recruiting – for all of us, and we want to take this chance to thank you (as always) for reading and learning along with us. We look forward to continuing to bring you the latest insights on international recruitment in the year ahead.

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