5 things our data is telling us about universities' recruitment in 2021

A recent survey of our international school counselors has allowed us to make a number of predictions about universities' international recruitment in 2021.  

Over the past few months, we’ve focused our research and data analysis on how COVID-19 has impacted international students’ university plans in 2020. 

Our analysis found our students were, for the most part, still intent on realising their international higher education ambitions in 2020. 

We found that, for the majority of our students, COVID-19 had not affected their plans, with 67% of respondents telling us that they had no intention to change their plans at all. Only 33% of our students told us their plans had changed. 

Likewise, of those students who did change their plans, 86% told us they were still attending university. We also found that, for the most part, students were keen to start their studies in the coming academic year, with a total of 68% of students expressing their intention to start their degree either in September 2020 or January 2021. 

But for some traditional university destinations, our research painted a decidedly less rosy picture. 

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We found that, for those students who did decide to change their country of destination, the United States experienced a 71% drop in interest from international students, while the UK and Canada experienced a 56% and 58% drop respectively. 

But with the 2020/21 academic year now under way, we wanted to learn more about how COVID-19 may already be affecting the next cohort of international students, who will be matriculating next year. 

So that’s why we reached out to a small cohort of our high school counselors to ask them how COVID-19 is already beginning to affect their 2021 matriculating students. 

We also analysed the universities and courses that our 2021 students are shortlisting. We compared this shortlist dataset to the equivalent dataset from the 2020 graduating cohort from the previous year. (Feb-June 2019, graduation year 2020).

Our analysis allows us to make a number of predictions about universities’ international recruitment in 2021. Here, we outline five of them. 

1. COVID-19 hasn't significantly impacted 2021 students’ application plans...yet

When we asked our counselors how COVID-19 had impacted their international students’ university application plans in 2021, 47% of counselors told us that, so far, none of their students were affected by COVID-19. 

A further 37% of counselors told us that less than a quarter of their students were changing their university plans as a result of COVID-19. 

Only a small percentage of counselors (16%) told us that more than 25% of their students’ plans were changing as a result of COVID-19.

2. Traditional university destinations are still popular with international students

Despite some commentary suggesting that the US, UK & Canada will lose their status as the most popular international destinations, we find these three destinations remain popular for 2021 students as they begin their application journey. 

We found that the USA, UK & Canada still made up over 85% in the 2021 admissions cycle to date. Specifically the UK comprised 44% of shortlists, followed by the USA (33.6%) & Canada (10.4%). Other emerging university destinations combined make up the additional 12% of shortlists for the application cycle to date.

3. ...but traditional university destinations have a slightly diminished lead over their emerging counterparts

Our research finds that there has been a small swing away from traditional university destinations as the 2020/21 recruitment cycle begins. 

Comparing the shortlist preferences across the 2020 & 2011 matriculating cohorts, we found 7% fewer shortlists for US universities & colleges. Canada experienced a 1% drop in shortlists, while Hong Kong experienced a 56% decrease year on year. 

The UK has experienced a slight increase in shortlists year on year, but this is a small increase when we compare it to some of the emerging destinations in our study. 

And while traditional destinations haven’t lost their dominance in terms of overall popularity, it’s interesting to note the destinations that have had the biggest year on year increases in terms of shortlists from our students. 

We note that, with an increase of 124% China has experienced the biggest jump in shortlists from international students. This may be because a greater number of international students are choosing to stay in China for university. 

Italy has been the second biggest beneficiary of the swing away from traditional destinations, with an increase of 53% year-on-year. 

4. Uncertainty around international travel is the most influential factor affecting 2021 students’ application plans

Uncertainty surrounding international travel was the factor that counselors cited as the most influential factor that influenced changes to their application plans in 2020. 

When we surveyed our counselors to ask the most influential factor that could change their students' application plans in 2021, we got a similar response. 

Once again, the majority of counselors ranked uncertainty surrounding the logistics of international travel as a ‘Very Important’ factor in their students’ decision making. 

In addition, we found that 44% of counselors ranked concerns over obtaining a student visa as an important concern for their 2021 students. 

Counselors ranked concerns over a second wave of COVID-19 and the fear of being locked down at university as a third deciding factor that could affect their students enrolment plans in 2021. 

5. Counselors & students will need continued transparency about changes to universities’ admissions processes

When we asked counselors what they felt universities could be doing to support students in their decision making, an overwhelming 89% of counselors told us that more transparency about university admission requirements would be the very important factor for students applying to university in 2021. 

In addition, counselors told us that universities would need to communicate any and all campus reopening plans with students, with 71% of counselors citing this as a very important factor. 

Counselors also felt that universities needed to be transparent with students about potential changes to their academic experience, as university and college campuses continue to adapt their public health contingency measures in response to COVID-19. 

Again, 71% of counselors cited communications around the academic experience as a very important factor in their students’ decision making. 

What does 2021 hold for universities' international recruitment?

Many of our counselors also told us that the political situation in the United States, combined with the country’s mixed COVID-19 response, has affected their students’ perceptions of the country overall.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Hong Kong, a region that has otherwise done an impressive job of containing the spread of COVID-19, it is, perhaps, that the impact of geopolitics may outlast the impact of the pandemic.

With the next academic year just around the corner, there is still plenty of opportunity for the traditional university destinations to recover from the impact that COVID-19 has had on their international student recruitment efforts in the 2020 admissions cycle. But governments, policymakers and universities alike need to give international students and the counselors supporting them the clarity and stability they need and deserve.

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