Cara Skikne

The Impact Of COVID-19 on International Students Perceptions


Last week saw universities, companies, and government alike escalating the measures to contain the outbreak. Coronavirus stormed through the global economy grinding activities almost to a halt. This applies to the normal operations of universities: classes are empty, and research retreated to single researchers. 

But some departments have picked up the challenge and quickly started coping with the emergency: 

  • What are students saying about the Coronavirus outbreak? 
  • What are students planning to do? 
  • What can universities do to reassure students? 

International offices, marketing, and planning departments all need one input to start planning for the future and quantify risk: industry insights. Since Friday 20 March Studyportals has been running an online survey among international students to find out what their perceptions are on COVID-19 and how it may impact their study abroad plans. 

This post presents the results of this survey after week #1. Studyportals will continue collecting answers and keep weekly updates on the results of the questionnaire. 

Who took part in the survey? 

Until now – 26 March – 401 respondents submitted the complete survey. These are generally students (58%) or workers (26%) who are looking at study programmes abroad (68%). A large number of them is studying at a Bachelor’s level (46%) and is actively searching for their Master’s degree (61%). Most of them are students already studying on campus (75%) and are overwhelmingly looking for on-campus programmes (93%, up to five per cent from the overall average of 86%).

The main countries of origin are Nigeria (13%), India (12%), Pakistan (6%), Uganda (4%) and Ghana (4%), and Iran (3%). 

When are they planning to enrol? 

47% of the respondents planned to enrol in the next 6 months. Which is, to add context to this analysis, to the next winter semester, if not earlier. The other groups have a more relaxed time frame: 27% plan to enrol within a year; 12% between 12 and 18 months; 11% plan to start studying later. They also use the internet to compare different study options, gather information and eventually send applications. The group of students who took part in the survey is mostly comparing options. For them, the large disruption came after taking the decision of studying abroad, but before sending applications. 

For this purpose, this week the analysis will focus on the group that is going to be more affected by the outbreak: the ones planning to enrol within October (47% of all answers) side by side with the group with more time to take a final decision. 

How are they coping with the crisis? 

It appears that the concerns for potential disruption is shared by students worldwide. However, students closer to their deadline are more aware that the current situation will affect their studies (65% likely and very likely vs. 59%). 

Around two-thirds of prospective students planning to study in the next six months think their studies are going to be affected by the virus outbreak.
The real question, however, is whether they are already taking measures to cope with the crisis, and even more importantly, which measures are they considering.

Start planned within 6 months

Start planned after 6 months


The responses of students to the pandemic are more intense in prospective students who will start studying later. These students are not disappearing, but apparently, they decided to put their studies on hold. This is eventually an opportunity for institutions that can reach out to them. 

What are they worried about? 

The main worries students seem to have are related to travel restrictions (82%) and to financial issues: a decrease of their (parents’) available budget (60-67%) or the cost of studying abroad becoming more expensive (43%).

What can universities do in the times of Corona? 

When asked what measure universities can take and are important, out of the whole sample, 84% indicated better hygiene as the most important measure, followed by a 24/7 helpline (57%), online counselling and support (56%) and extension of the application period (55%). 

However, the two groups diverged on certain issues: for the prospective students planning to start in the upcoming six months, time is of the essence. The group rated very important and important two main ways of bending the application rules: 

  1. Extending the application period. 
  2. Accepting applications even when some tests are missing (e.g. IELTS, GMAT). 

Start planned within 6 months 

Start planned after 6 months

Perceptions and active actions 

Regardless of your larger strategy, some short-term measures can be taken to cater to the needs of all students. While understanding the needs of your future students is, in general, good practise, special attention should be given to students that are likely to start in 2020. 

It is important to show that universities are working having the students’ best interest at heart. Small, concrete and visible changes are very welcomed: better hygiene around the campus, and keeping communications open appear very important in the mind of prospective students. 

Students that are closer to their enrolment deadline ask for greater flexibility: the provisional acceptance of applications, or extraordinary flexibility in admission criteria may help them weather the worst of this crisis. Moreover, this cohort of students is less likely to dismiss their plans. Prospective students with more relaxed deadlines might rearrange their plans and consider alternatives to their study abroad plans, but only time will tell. These survey results are part of an ongoing investigation, and more insights are coming in the next weeks. 

In the meantime, there are certain actions that can be taken: be flexible, be close to students, and join the conversation on how higher education can prepare a rebound. Stay tuned for more updates on the Student Perceptions of COVID-19 and check our upcoming webinars!

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