Business management

Coronavirus: the impact on international students in higher education

International students are worth £6.9bn to UK universities, but how is the sector responding to the impact of coronavirus on talent and revenue?

  • The net worth to the UK economy of international students amounts to more than £20bn
  • Some higher education experts believe a coronavirus-induced recession will curb the number of future overseas students enrolling at UK universities
  • Others argue parents are increasingly assessing the ROI of an international education, something that UK universities are well-placed to demonstrate

The global pandemic and subsequent nationwide lockdown have inevitably meant massive disruption for the current crop of undergraduates. Many overseas students have returned home, and classes have either been paused or moved online.

Now there’s growing concern about the potential impact the current crisis might have on future demand, particularly from overseas students.

“Coronavirus is likely to have a significant impact on this year’s recruitment and admissions cycle for international students,” says a spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents the higher education sector.

“Universities are modelling for a decrease in international students, and we also don’t yet know what impact there might be on home recruitment.”

Fee income from international students (both EU and non-EU) accounts for around £6.9bn of income to UK higher education. They also bring significant spending to local communities – a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2018 revealed the net worth of international students to the UK economy is £20.3bn.

So it’s no surprise that both universities and businesses are anxiously waiting to see how the enrolment of undergraduates will be affected by the present lockdown and any future restrictions.

Responding to uncertainties

Chloe Godsell, UK partnerships manager at the admissions support consultancy Crimson Education, says the challenge facing the UK in terms of overseas students is not new.

“We were already dealing with an unusual situation with Brexit, which in terms of European students was going to have an impact. I think [coronavirus] will have a slight impact on the desire and willingness to move to a new place immediately – but I don’t doubt that will level off.”

Godsell hopes UK universities are well positioned because they can demonstrate the value they provide: “Parents are increasingly looking at return on investment of international education. A student looking to apply to the UK is paying a lot of money, so we are having an increasing number of conversations about the ROI.

“UK universities position graduates for fantastic jobs and a wealth of opportunity. They embody a strong sense of opportunity. The UK will always have that kind of appeal.”

Many universities have already established their next intake of students, so the current lockdown won’t necessarily impact how they showcase themselves to future students. A Universities UK spokesperson says: “Events, such as open days, won’t be held at the moment. However, lots of universities have virtual tours available. These events will have taken place throughout the academic year.”

UK universities position graduates for fantastic jobs and a wealth of opportunity. The UK will always have that kind of appeal

Chloe Godsell
Partnerships manager for Crimson Education

John MacIntyre is pro vice chancellor at the University of Sunderland. He explains it will be hard to comprehend the extent of the impact until the scale of the current crisis becomes clear.

“The key issues will be how long it goes on for in the UK and whether students think it’s safe to come,” says MacIntyre. “Lots of students left the UK when this began because they felt it was safer at home. We’ll need clarity on what the issues and restrictions will be here in the UK.”

MacIntyre believes the number of international students will also depend on what barriers and constraints they face coming into the UK both in September this year and for future intakes.

“You’d hope that at least by January, February we’ll be through the worst,” he says. “But it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that there’ll be a second wave of infections. And it’s not only the UK we need to consider – any second waves in their own countries might mean that international students face restrictions on travel.

“But from a University of Sunderland perspective, the UK brand remains strong in higher education globally. There is demand.”

Studying at a time of recession

Coronavirus is not just a health issue. The signs are the world is entering a significant recession that could also impact student demand.

A recent study carried out by the financial education start-up Blackbullion showed that just 14% of students felt financially confident about returning to their studies at the start of the next academic year.

Its founder and CEO, Vivi Friedgut, says: “We will see a slight decrease in numbers. They won’t fall off a cliff, but we’ll perhaps see some people putting it off.

“But if you can’t get a job, then you might live at home and go to university, so it could boost the numbers for some of the typically less in-demand universities as people stay closer to family homes.”

Godsell adds: “It depends to what extent this recession takes hold, but the obvious way that it will manifest is families reducing their expenditure. Luxuries, such as studying abroad, may not be tenable any more. It will depend on how far people’s personal finances are affected by this.”

Still an attractive place to study

While there are real concerns around future student numbers, there’s also a widespread sense in higher education that if there is still demand from international students, the UK’s institutions are well-placed to attract them.

Godsell says: “We are in a fortunate position in this country, with some of the best universities in the world, second only to the US. People will move heaven and earth to get their children here. I believe we will come through this and families will still prioritise a UK education.”

And MacIntyre concludes: “The UK higher education system is still very much open for business and wants to keep bringing students here, not only because of the financial value they have but because they are so valued as part of our student body.”

Once the world begins to reopen and students are again able to travel, universities will be hoping they continue to recognise the value of a UK education.

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

scroll to top