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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Measures to widen access to the independent education sector are supported by significant proportions of the British public

Education is a key battleground in the 2019 General Election campaign with the two main political parties polarised in their education policies. The Labour Party manifesto outlines education proposals to “close tax loopholes enjoyed by independent schools” and to seek advice on “integrating independent schools into the state sector”.  Meanwhile the Conservatives are drawing up a pledge to create more grammar school places and the reintroduction of a version of the Assisted Places scheme, abolished in 1997 under Tony Blair, is also being mooted.

Ahead of the political party conference season in September, Research Stories conducted some research among over 2,000 adults in England, Scotland and Wales to explore attitudes towards some of the education policy areas being proposed as well as perceptions of ways that independent schools can widen access to the sector.Measures to widen access to the independent education sector are supported by significant proportions of the British public

We found that while there is broad support for making changes to independent schools’ tax status, policies to widen access to the sector resonate particularly well with the general public.  Around half of British adults (49%) think that independent schools should be forced to offer many more scholarships or subsidised places vs only 13% who disagree with this premise.

This measure is positively viewed across the board, especially among Labour supporters (62%), Liberal Democrat voters and parents with children aged 18 and under (54% each). A significant proportion of Conservative voters also support this premise (44%) although they are also key opponents with 21% disagreeing that independent schools should be made to do this.

For a significant proportion of the public, the sector needs to go much further to broaden access to the sector.  When asked if they agreed that the sector should be forced to offer (hypothetically) at least half their places to children from low income families, around a third (32%) of Brits agreed.  But this is a contentious issue and almost as many people disagree with this proposal (29%).

Opinion on this proposal to set tougher targets is strongly polarised with Labour voters being twice as likely to agree with it than Conservatives (46% vs 23%) and Conservatives being four times more likely than Labour voters to disagree (45% vs 11%).

The principle that the independent education sector should do more to increase access was also highlighted in a study we conducted over a year ago in September 2018 among British adults aged 18+.  Here we found that over half (54%) of GB adults agreed that independent schools should make more places available to children from disadvantaged backgrounds while only ten per cent disagreed.

Again, this measure is particularly popular with Labour voters (64%) as well as among young people aged 18-24 (64%) and Londoners (61%).  There are also high levels of support among Liberal Democrat (57%) and Conservative (49%) voters.

Research by the ISC in early September shows that the British public would like to see the government take a lead on widening access to the independent education sector. Around half (49%) would support a government policy to help pay for children from low income backgrounds to attend an independent school with 46% of Labour voters in favour of this measure.

The independent education sector appears to be attuned to public opinion on this front.  In September, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) announced an offer to teach 10,000 disadvantaged children at a cost of £5,500 each – equivalent to the cost of state education – to be funded by the government. Advocates for this measure also believe that it will deliver another important long-term benefit of widening access in future years to the top professions and careers.

There are a number of examples of good practice initiatives to increase access within the independent education. These include Assisted Places schemes, ‘needs blind ‘admission programmes, the establishment of overseas schools and campuses to provide funding for bursaries at schools in the UK, education vouchers and schemes whereby independent schools collaborate with charities and local authorities to place disadvantaged children in some of the UK’s most prestigious boarding schools.

Christ’s Hospital and Latymer Upper schools provide means tested assisted places to pupils from low-income families and Latymer Upper School aims to offer means-tested bursaries to one in four pupils by 2024 (this is an increase on the one in five pupils nationally who get some or all of their fees paid). Both schools were finalists at the 2019 UK Social Mobility Awards for encouraging social mobility through their bursary and outreach programmes. According to Sam Burns, who attended Christ’s Hospital school on an assisted place, “A whole new world of opportunities arose: alongside academic excellence were the soft skills, pastoral care – and, importantly for me, sport.”

‘Needs blind’ admission at independent schools in Great Britain is seen by some as a key way to improve social mobility by ensuring that fees are covered for the brightest pupils from low income families and that the benefits of an independent education can be spread more widely.

An experiment with the ‘needs blind’ approach was adopted in the Open Access project by Belvedere School in Liverpool in partnership with the Sutton Trust in the early 2000s. After seven years, one third of pupils had their fees wholly or partly paid for by the Sutton Trust and the Girls Day School Trust (GDST). The academic results of the school were the best in the city, even though the school now reflected the demographics of the local area.

A new Impact Report by the Royal National Children’s Springboard Foundation is an evidenced based scheme demonstrating that increasing access to independent boarding schools can be transformative. The research followed the progress of over 700 children from troubled backgrounds who have been placed in boarding schools over the past five years.

The report found that pupils on this scheme are three times more likely to go to university and six time more likely to achieve at least two A’Levels compared to disadvantaged students nationally.

The scheme focuses on a ‘whole child agenda’ matching children to a boarding school that is right for them rather than ‘cherry picking’ the brightest students. The places are largely funded by the schools through bursaries and in some cases the local authority also contributes to the cost.

The charity works with a network of community and mentoring organisations and seven local authorities to offer each child pastoral support throughout their time at school and at home.

Ian Davenport, chief executive of Royal SpringBoard believes that a boarding school education can provide life changing opportunities:

“A boarding school offers more than high quality teaching and learning. It can also provide a supportive and stable pastoral environment, where expectations are high and aspiration is encouraged.

This impact data demonstrates that academically, pastorally and socially, our pupils grow and flourish in their schools and beyond.”

A number of initiatives within the independent education sector have demonstrated that increasing access to the sector is possible but all of the schemes explored here are bespoke. It is clear that significant proportions of the British public would welcome the introduction of a national scheme whereby government would fund places for children from low income backgrounds to attend independent schools.

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.

Brexit – is it a positive or a negative for international recruitment?

We asked new international students about Brexit and its impact on their views regarding aspects of UK higher education. When asking them, these students had just started their course in the UK in Autumn 2016 and 2017 respectively. The picture they paint us is somewhat confusing, to say the least, and goes against many of the rhetoric that we can hear from media.

The impact of Brexit on perceptions of the overall attractiveness of the UK as a place to studyThe new cohort starting in 2017 seems more hopeful than the one the year before. This is consistent across EU and non-EU (Rest of World) nationals. The share of new internationals students reporting a positive impact of Brexit on their perceptions of the overall attractiveness of the UK as a place to study has gone up by 4% points among EU/EEA nationals and by 5% points among RoW nationals. In line with this, the share of those reporting a negative impact of Brexit on the same aspect has gone down by 7% point among EU/EEA nationals and by 3% points among RoW nationals.

It is very hard to tell whether this is a mere coincidence, or whether the UK is attracting more international students who see the positives of Brexit.

We are very curious about this year’s results to see whether the trend keeps going in the same direction or not.

We are now in the process of conducting the fifth wave of our research among new international students. If you are interested in finding out more about the current or previous research, please don’t hesitate to contact us. If your institution intends to take part in the research, please read the call for participation.

British International Schools Provide Key Pathway into UK Higher Education

The latest Independent School Council (ISC) Census in 2017 found for the first time that the number of international pupils attending international campuses of UK independent schools exceeds the number of non-British pupils attending independent schools in the UK. Fifty-nine such campuses educate a total of 31,773 pupils, an increase from 46 campuses in 2016 with 27,619 pupils. This compares to 27,281 pupils with parents living overseas who are educated in ISC schools in the UK this time. In total, international pupils make up 5.2% of pupils at ISC schools.

These overseas satellites have been set up mainly in lucrative markets such as China, the Gulf states, Malaysia and Singapore where there seems to be a growing appetite for UK education. Recent British Council research looking at factors contributing to the rapid expansion of UK private schools overseas, cites increased government scrutiny of international students coming to the UK as well as the need for these schools to find new revenue streams as the sector becomes increasing unaffordable for British parents as key reasons for the experience.

As UK universities face increasingly tough competition for international students as well as greater financial uncertainties, especially in the wake of Brexit, our own research demonstrates that the UK school system is providing an important pathway into the HE sector for these internationally mobile students.

UK SchoolsOur annual survey among new international undergraduate students entering UK universities in 2016/17 found that a third came from school directly, of whom one in seven were already in the UK. Further, of those undergraduates who come from the school system outside the UK, 12% were educated in a British international school. According to COBIS (Council of British International Schools), half of its pupils go onto UK universities.

This underlines the importance of understanding and embracing this key pathway into UK higher education. It suggests that UK HEIs should ensure that international recruitment strategies take into account both the international profile of children already in the UK school system and those within UK overseas schools as well. It is important to maintain strong links with international officers of leading UK independent and British International schools.

Given the ambitious target set by the British government to increase education exports, the contribution of these international students in the UK school system cannot be underestimated. The continued attraction of a UK education depends on maintaining the current strong reputation for a high quality education.

A survey we conducted last year for the UK Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA),the largest association of boarding schools in the world, found that two-thirds of parents of international pupils send their children to boarding schools in the UK because of  the high quality of education and nearly a quarter do so in order to improve their child’s access to UK higher education.  It  is expected that UK independent schools will continue to expand in key overseas regions and should be in a strong position to take advantage of growing populations interested in an international education and the enduring appeal of a British education.

At the same time, UK and other Western universities are also increasingly expanding by setting up international branch campuses, a recent example being the University of Birmingham’s plans to open a satellite in Dubai. These offer international students a degree from a prestigious university without the expense or visa barriers of studying abroad. Undoubtedly, pupils from British international schools will be key targets for these institutions.

Here and there – TNE as a way of gaining an international qualification

The third wave of our research conducted among new international students starting their course at a UK universities in the academic year 2016/17 confirmed that there are many routes that international students take to arrive at UK universities. Three in five come directly from school or university but, a significant share (29%) were actually working prior to starting their current course. This share rises to nearly half among new international postgraduate students.

Blog Post 1 ChartAlthough potentially of less economic value to UK universities, those on TNE courses and only doing part of their course in the UK, are an increasingly important group. Nearly three in ten new international students opt for this mode of study for various financial and personal reasons. This share rises to four in ten among international undergraduates. In some origin countries this represents a significant part of the HE course provision (over two thirds of new undergraduates from China and nearly half of those from Malaysia claim to be TNE students).

We are now in the process of setting up the fourth wave or our research among new international students. If you are interested in finding out more about the current or previous research, please don’t hesitate to contact us. If your institution participated in the research and you have not received a headline report, please get in touch.

The Lycée Winston Churchill; the future for intercultural education?

In September we were delighted to be invited to the official opening by the President of France of the Lycée International de Londres Winston Churchill on the site of the former Brent Town Hall in Wembley.

Francois Hollande gives speech at the Lycee Winston Churchill opening

The new Lycée complements the long-established Lycée Charles de Gaulle in Kensington and the recently opened Collège Français Bilingue de Londres in Kentish Town in reflecting and responding to the needs of the rapidly growing French and Francophone population in London.

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UK higher education faces growing international competition including from within the EU

IHE Customer Journey Headline Report 2015The UK education brand remains strong with a reputation for academic quality, the English language and UK culture and lifestyle being key strengths.  However, there is growing competition for international students not only from key English language speaking countries such as USA, Australia and Canada but also from European competitors such as Germany or France.

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Parents highly satisfied with state boarding provision reveals our latest research

Almost all parents of boarders at state boarding schools claim that their child is happy boarding (93%) and would recommend their child’s school or boarding to others (95%), reveals our latest research commissioned by the State Boarding Schools’ Association (SBSA).

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Success in international education requires inter-cultural competence

Our latest forecasts suggest that in academic year 2014/15 just under 40,000 Chinese nationals will start Postgraduate level studies at a UK Higher Education Institutions alongside 21,000 of their fellow country-men and women who will start courses at Undergraduate level.

While the official data will not be published for another eighteen months, Robert Peston of the BBC has recently pointed out that the number of Chinese students starting Masters courses in the UK is not far short of the number of UK students. In areas such as maths, science and engineering, Chinese students are already numerically by far the dominant national group.

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