A third of prospective international students expressed intentions of changing their enrolment plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent study.

Students about to begin further study were surveyed to gain an understanding of the pandemic’s impact on the global mobility of prospective international students in 2020/21 by BridgeU, a worldwide university and careers guidance hub for secondary schools.

Of these students, 42% have decided to study in a country that differs from their original destination. The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are among the most adversely affected by COVID-19, experiencing drops of 71%, 58% and 56% respectively.

In contrast, countries like Australia (+167%), China (+124%), Italy (+83%), India (+53%), Germany (+53%), and South Korea (+52%) have seen a significant boost in popularity among the study’s sample. But despite these shifts by prospective students, findings show the USA, UK and Canada still account for over 85% of prospective international students’ preferred study destinations.

Men wearing masks in Macau during Coronavirus

What’s causing these shifts?

One of the reasons noted in BridgeU’s report, ‘How Will COVID-19 Really Impact International Students’ Enrolments in 2020 & 2021?’ is a lack of transparency, or an absence of academic support, towards prospective students – a sentiment which an overwhelming majority of counsellors (89%) concurred with when asked what universities needed to improve.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the largest German support organisation, found that US universities have cancelled more study abroad programs than German universities: 83% of the US’s exchange programs were fully suspended in the 2020 summer semester, compared to just 22% of those in Germany. Additionally, online applications and the opportunity to adjust application deadlines and online applications were twice as likely to be offered by Germany than by the USA.

Sehr Taneja, a Masters student at the USA’s Harvard Kennedy School, believes there are many reasons to be sceptic during these times, most of which revolving around politics, health care, immigration and visa status. These are adequate concerns, due to President Trump’s imposed travel bans and whiplash student visa policy changes, all-the-while witnessing coronavirus case numbers rise in her country of residence.

Australia, which has seen a generous surge in prospective student interest, has displayed the opposite during the pandemic’s aftermath, devising regulations to ensure international students are not worse off due to COVID-19. These changes involve easing visa regulations to facilitate international travel and lodging, as well as additional time to complete any English language qualifications required.

man in white t-shirt and black shorts standing on black bench during daytime

Canada, on the other hand, has established harsh travel restrictions to ensure the safety of its citizens, and for student permits, this means inaccurate processing times for prospective international students. Furthermore, some applications have been prioritised, such as ones from Canadian citizens trying to return to Canada, individuals in vulnerable conditions, and individuals who perform or support essential services.

Lastly, countries like India, Italy, and China, which have been struck notably by COVID-19, have seen a growth in popularity by students as travel destinations, a particularly interesting finding by BridgeU. Indian universities are said to have increased their online outreach, which could be an explanatory factor for the rise in popularity, along with the low fees and quality of education in India’s top 15-20% of colleges and universities. Similar reasons could be attributed to Italy and China, especially considering that, while they may have been the epicentres of the pandemic, they have overcome COVID-19’s hardships and believe they can prevent a second wave.

Where Does This Leave The UK?

Some of the main concerns of prospective international students in the study by BridgeU revolve around the difficulty of international travel, concerns about the academic experience, campus health, safety and accommodation measures, the risk of contracting COVID-19 and the risk of a second wave.

Research by the University of Manchester suggests that the barriers for Chinese students, for example, are not political tensions, or fee levels, but rather the anxiety of whether travelling to the UK is safe, being alarmed by the UK death toll, which has ranked one of the highest in the world. Prospective students like Henry Xia, who was expecting to travel to the University of Manchester, are carefully monitoring how the UK is tackling the virus, finding pictures of Boris Johnson wearing a mask as a positive signal.

Moreover, research by IDP Connect, an educational guidance company with one of the world’s largest course database, suggests that nearly 70% of prospective international students do not intend to change their plans, a finding that correlates with BridgeU’s study, meaning that many prospective international students still intend to take up their academic opportunities in the UK.

Download the report here.

Read more about international students on GSL News.