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British Council: £463 million shortfall just from Asian market

Image: James Cridland [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Export champion predicts multi-million losses next year due to Covid-19 uncertainty among students

Universities should brace themselves for a minimum shortfall of almost £500 million next year, in an optimistic scenario, as international students choose to stay at home, the British Council has warned.

A survey of more than 15,000 prospective international students in East Asia with plans to study overseas in September revealed that 29 per cent were likely to cancel their study plans, and 35 per cent were undecided. Students from countries in East Asia accounted for 52 per cent of the UK’s total non-EU international student recruits in 2018-19.

The British Council said UK universities must prepare, at the optimistic end of estimates, for almost 14,000 fewer enrolments from students in East Asia next year compared to 2018-19, representing a 12 per cent drop which could lead to losses of £463 million in tuition fees and living costs.

In a report on the survey results, the British Council said its “pessimistic scenario” predicted a 61 per cent drop in new enrolments compared to 2018-19, with a £2.3 billion drop in student spending and tuition fee income.

Survey author and global head of insights and consultancy for British Council International Education Services Matt Durnin said there was “a window of opportunity” over the summer to give students “a greater sense of certainty about the upcoming academic year”. “If responses are clear and quickly communicated to prospective students, UK higher education will face a much more manageable scenario,” he said.

Among postgraduate students, 63 per cent backed a face-to-face start in January over starting their course online in September, supported by 15 per cent. Almost half of undergraduate students also favoured an in-person start in January over an online start in the autumn, at 43 per cent compared to 37 per cent.

Prospective international students in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam took part in the survey between 24 April and 15 May, which showed that students in Indonesia and Taiwan were most likely to cancel their study plans. Those in Hong Kong were most likely to stick to their study plans, with 57 per cent agreeing that they are “somewhat likely” to study abroad in the autumn.

It comes after two separate British Council surveys found that almost half of all students in India and Pakistan in India and Pakistan who had applied to study in the UK were “not at all likely” to cancel their plans, but 39 per cent of students in China were undecided.

Commenting on the survey, Russell Group chief executive Tim Bradshaw said recovery from the coronavirus pandemic meant universities “have to expect international student numbers will fall for a while and that competition from other countries will be even more fierce than usual”.

Bradshaw called on the government to fast-track the proposed two-year post-study work visa into law to attract more international students, and to continue reforming the visa system and immigration process.

Responding to the report University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “The current wait-and-see approach from ministers is exacerbating the crisis for prospective students and putting tens of thousands of jobs at universities and in the wider economy at risk. Universities have already started cutting jobs and will keep trying to do so as the uncertainty persists, with huge repercussions on local economies that depend on higher education.

“Universities are focusing their efforts on trying to get as many students through their doors in September, yet they are refusing to listen to students in the UK and abroad who say they are worried about what their education will look like and even if their chosen institution can ride out the crisis.”