The COVID-19 catastrophe has led every sector in every corner of the globe to rethink its modus operandi. In the context of international education, that means considering more carefully the changing expectations and motivations of the rising generation of international students, using them as guiding principles around which to imagine new modes of recruitment and teaching.
This August, INTO carried out a survey of Gen Z students around the world who are interested in or currently studying abroad. We did so with one question in mind: how will rising international students’ collective experience of the pandemic drive new paradigms of learning and working? What we found is a generation of students who are singularly resilient, adaptable and set on forging a brighter future for themselves. More than half of them are actively considering a new career path in the wake of COVID-19, and most link an international degree to clear-cut objectives that will help them pivot to career success. In order to facilitate that success – and post-pandemic recovery – the international education sector must respond to Gen Z’s evolving demands, implementing innovative programmes and delivering concrete outcomes.
Gen Z: Defining the undefinable
Composed of those born between the mid-1990s and 2012, Gen Z makes up 30% of the global population and, by 2025, will make up just over a quarter of the global workforce. It also constitutes the largest share of the pool of prospective international students.
No generation is homogeneous, especially not one that refuses to define itself using rigid stereotypes and binaries. That said, our research finds several similarities across the rising generation of international students, bolstered by their common experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gen Z’s changing career aspirations
Gen Z students’ career aspirations have changed in response to a year and a half of adversity and transformation brought on by the pandemic. More than 1,200 students across 93 countries responded to INTO’s survey, 55% of whom reported that they are considering a career path different to that which they had planned to pursue prior to the pandemic. Specifically, 25% indicated that their career aspirations have changed a lot, while 30% indicated they have changed a little.
Our findings further demonstrate that Gen Z has re-evaluated what matters to them and questioned traditional ways of working while contemplating new career paths. Nearly half of Gen Z students (49%) said they want a career that offers better work-life balance, and 36% said they want a career that allows them to work flexibly, including fully remote.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, Gen Z is also demonstrating its entrepreneurial spirit, with 45% of under 25s indicating that they aspire to one day launch their own business. Not content to let pre-pandemic systems prescribe career paths, Gen Z international students want to carve out independent futures.
Gen Z’s purposeful pursuit of higher education
Far from impractical, Gen Z is pragmatic in its approach to success — even if they define it differently to their predecessors. A significant proportion of Gen Z students – 91% – care passionately about learning and, in the context of higher education, see it as a gateway through which they may realize their dreams.
Focusing on Gen Z international students, 90% believe a degree from a foreign institution will help them acquire the skills they need to be successful in life. In their minds, international degrees are inextricably linked with career outcomes – 84% study abroad to train for a specific career, and 83% believe an international degree will give them a competitive advantage towards a career. In short, Gen Z perceives overseas study as more than getting an outstanding degree – it is an essential stepping stone on the path to success in their careers and lives.
Gen Z looks forward, not backward
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on lives and economies, and it has taken its toll on young people’s mental health. However, similar to studies that show their development of critical qualities such as self-motivation and emotional intelligence amid lockdowns, our survey confirms that COVID-19 has failed to break Gen Z students’ belief in a bright future.
Nine in ten (91%) Gen Z students said they have a positive outlook on their future; 48% feel hopeful but somewhat anxious about their future, and 43% feel optimistic and excited. Only 7% reported that they feel worried and stressed about their future. These findings support those of a previous INTO survey which found that 98% of prospective international students are excited to study in the UK and the US this autumn.
Meeting the demands of Gen Z
Over the course of the pandemic, Gen Z students have proven themselves to be flexible, career-focused and, most remarkably of all, unfazed. They are embarking on their education journey with a set of expectations greater than that of any learner the international education sector has encountered before.
In the same way Gen Z has refused to stick to the status quo, international educators must meet young students’ evolving demands with reimagined programmes that offer clearly defined returns on their investment in an international degree. Post-pandemic recovery depends on flexibly facilitating the success of Gen Z international students who, in the face of challenges and change, have their eyes fixed on the horizon.
2021 INTO #GenZSurvey: This is the first in a new series — INTO #GenZSurvey — in which we connect with the first generation born into a digitally integrated, globally connected world and map out the implications of their worldviews for international education. More than 1,200 students under 25 across 93 countries – including China, India, Nigeria, Kenya, Japan, Australia and Brazil, among others – took part in the survey. Students were either starting their first year of an international degree programme or planning to study abroad.
Author: Dr. Parves Khan
Dr. Parves Khan is Vice President, Market Research and Insight, for INTO University Partnerships. Over a career that has lasted more than 25 years, she has run her own research consultancy, transformed the research and insight function at digital-first insurance company Ageas, and, most recently before INTO, led global research and insight at Pearson. Parves has been designated as one of the Iconic Women Creating a Better World for All by the Women Economic Forum (WEF), and she counts among Women in Data UK’s Twenty in Data and Technology 2020. She holds a BSc, Political Science and Government, from the University of Wales, Cardiff, and a PhD, European Union Integration, from the University of Bristol.