Rebecca Nicoletti

The experience of the Covid-19 pandemic among international students in the UK: New original research highlights key challenges for the UK and the HE sector

As Covid-19 spread in the UK and lockdown was introduced, we ran a survey among international students currently studying with a UK HEI who had started their course in the 2018/19 or 2019/20 academic year

Key themes covered by the survey included the:

  • International student experience of lockdown
  • Perceptions of how individual HEIs responded to the situation
  • Perceptions of how the UK responded to the situation
  • Impact on students’ perceptions of the UK and its HE offer internationally

This new report uses the original research as a springboard to explore the consequences for the UK sector of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the Covid-19 pandemic spreading around the globe in the first half of 2020, approximately 2.5m students enrolled in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) found themselves in a situation which neither they nor their host institution had ever faced before.

Half a million of these were international students; overwhelmingly young people in their 20s experiencing this unprecedented situation in a country that is not their own and often far from family, friends and support networks.

Understandably, many UK HEIs have a short-term concern about whether a new generation of international students will be willing/able to enrol in 2020/2021 if the pandemic continues.

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The impact of post-study work opportunity on international student recruitment

The government announcement to reintroduce a two-year post-study work (PSW) opportunity is huge news for the higher education sector which has been campaigning for years to achieve this policy change. From 2020/21 onwards, international students in the UK will once again have the opportunity to work in the UK post-graduation for up to two years, a change which is likely to have a significant positive impact on international student recruitment.

In 2012 the existing two-year PSW opportunity was abolished and the number of international students (particularly from India) enrolling in the UK decreased, with many students opting instead to enrol at universities in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Currently international students have a period of 4 months to search for skilled work in the UK after completing their studies. This has put the UK at a competitive disadvantage as a study destination with key competitors and especially with Canada which allows international students to work up to four years post graduation with a clear route to permanent residency.

Supporting the GREAT campaign, we have been tracking the competitiveness of the UK as an international study destination around the world for the last six years and as highlighted in our latest, ‘Why the UK?’ report,  the opportunity to work in the host country after studying is an extremely important destination choice criterion for many prospective internationally mobile students. The chart below, based on feedback from more than 2,000 new international students at UK HEIs in 2018,  shows clearly how the UK has been vulnerable on access to post-study employment opportunities compared to other competitor countries.

Research Stories - Why the UK - 2018 RoW PSW opportunitiesDetailed analysis allows us to understand the impact for individual origin markets, for postgraduate vs undergraduate prospects and in comparison against specific national competitors such as Canada, USA, Australia.

The reinstatement of a PSW opportunity should therefore enhance the UK’s higher education competitive advantage internationally and help reinforce its reputation in non-EU countries in the long term. The abolition of the previous PSW route became a cause celebre in the Indian media, for example, and was widely interpreted as evidence that the UK no longer welcomed students from South Asia.

Paradoxically, in the short-term the change may cause some headaches for universities in the academic year just starting with potentially a rush of students looking to defer the start of their course to next year in order to guarantee that they will be able to benefit from the new opportunity.