Cara Skikne

What are universities doing to salvage international recruitment?


Studyportals knows the struggles of higher education: in this time of crisis face-to-face interactions have been completely interrupted, blocking research, programme delivery, and the normal functioning of most departments. Yet the activities in marketing and recruitment are far from being halted, with most departments rewiring their operations to work and thrive in the new reality.

We conducted a survey among a selection of our contacts in the education community to understand how higher education institutions are responding to Covid-19. The survey collected responses from higher education institutions globally to gather insights in the status of international student recruitment.

What are universities doing for prospective students?

With international student mobility temporarily on hold, we asked 159 HE professionals what their institution is doing for prospective students. Their answers help understanding the extent of the measures taken so far.

We can easily categorize the measures taken in three main categories based on the distribution of the answers: essential measures, situational, and pilot stage.

Essential actions aim at continuing operations despite the current limitations. While these activities are not exact substitutes of face-to-face interactions, they aim at the same results. If your institution does not have these measures in place already, you might warmly consider:

  • Focusing on digital promotion
  • Offering online counseling and support
  • Offering virtual events (like tours, open days, and study fairs)

Situational actions are to be taken depending on the context you are operating in or your what-if plans towards the Fall 2020 student’s intake. These are measures acting as a buffer to mitigate the worse effects of the virus outbreak and include:

  • Being more flexible with the application period
  • Being more flexible with incomplete applications
  • Starting the semester online instead of on-campus

If you are a selecting institution already dealing with large number of applications, you have probably already some of these measures in place.

Finally, there are pilot-stage actions. These actions are taken by a limited number of universities and are intended to weather the worst of the emergency with less conventional countermeasures. These involve:

  • Offering financial support, such as payment in installments
  • Expanding the student waiting list or even admitting more students
  • Offering digital English language tests

Do these measures cover all possible responses?
We categorized answers based on the early results of the survey: it is descriptive of what other players in higher education are doing and therefore there can be other successful initiatives to be started.
Universities under stress can come up with interesting solutions to the problem of recruiting and retaining new students. Some examples mentioned: assistance via social media and an online community for current and prospective students.
It is important to be relevant to what students would like to see in a university. Our student survey (administered to current and prospective students worldwide since 20 March) signals that students can be reassured by small, concrete improvements on campus hygiene, by a contact line with the university, and by more flexibility with the application.

Universities are already focusing on easing the tension, providing assistance and gathering round their students as a community, creating safe, informative environments with the help social media. At the same time, some of them are showing a great degree of adaptability, extending tuition fee deadlines or allowing for delayed and flexible payment methods.

Band-aid or therapy?
Universities were quick to act but the scope of their measures remains limited due to uncertainties of government policies on travel and distancing. While a lot has been done for prospective students already, most universities can only act on short-term solutions rather than addressing the main pain-points of international students. Long-term solutions should expand the availability of study options addressing also immigration issues and financial issues of international students.
International student mobility is generally curtailed by immigration and financial obstacles. Study visa and money are crucial to secure student enrolments, and our recent student research on the impact of Covid-19 on study plans confirms the scale of these two factors. While finances depend largely on individual factors, easing study abroad criteria can be addressed by universities and seems necessary for a fast recovery of international student mobility.

What can be done next?
There is not a one-size-fits-all measure to deal with this emergency. However, you can take actions that cater to your student body and are aimed at your target groups for the upcoming semesters. Before you take action, it is important to know:

  • Developments of student interest

To better understand how students are looking for study options for 2021 and beyond, Studyportals ACT created a free access dashboard: this online resource is meant for you to keep track of student interest over time.

  • Priorities of current students

Finally, discovering the priorities of your current students can help tailoring your response: if you want to circulate the student survey among your current students and then compare your results with ours, feel free to contact us.

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