Before 2020, souring diplomatic relations between China and the US counted among several variables that precipitated in a small-but-steady decline in international student enrollment at American universities. Compounded with the global COVID-19 pandemic and skepticism regarding the initial US coronavirus response, perceptions of the study destination worsened not only in China but around the world, contributing to what would become historic international enrollment losses.
Over the course of 2021, INTO conducted two global surveys of education counselors and agents to gauge sentiment toward different destination countries as the pandemic continued — one in spring, and one in fall. The surveys show that, in the last year, perceptions of the US as a study destination have improved significantly in the China, Hong Kong and Macau (CHKM) region, and across the globe. Simultaneously, the latest Open Doors and visa issuance data suggest student demand is rebounding, too.
Although the emergence of the Omicron variant has renewed anxieties around international educational exchange — more so in some regions than others — these findings serve as strong signs that US international higher education is on the road toward recovery.
Over the last 22 months, education agents have offered higher education institutions a lifeline to prospective international students around the world. Continuing to support students in finding their best-fit universities through initial lockdowns and subsequent case surges, agents have also been the first to register the inevitable changes in study abroad decision-making brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
INTO’s recent, global agent survey shows that, across the board, agents feel study abroad aspirants are increasingly price-sensitive and focused on securing a stronger return on their investment from their international degree, especially in terms of career outcomes. At the same time, though agents anticipate student demand will return to face-to-face learning, they have registered increased interest in blended delivery among rising international students — a definite departure from pre-pandemic preferences. Amid these emerging and enduring trends, one thing is clear: flexibility must feature in the international education sector’s strategies to engage and support students as they navigate the new terrain before them.
This International Education Week finds the sector at an inflection point. After a year and a half of adapting to distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many students navigated travel restrictions and quarantine requirements to cross the globe and get to campus this fall.
On the part of international administrators and educators, there were hopes for a speedier recovery to pre-pandemic enrollment levels than has occurred. But case spikes, subsequent lockdowns, economic fallout and increased vigilance regarding global travel posed significant obstacles to such progress over the course of 2021.
While COVID-19 has taught us many lessons — not least of all how hard it is to predict the future — there is every reason to be cautiously optimistic that we have come through the worst of the pandemic’s impacts. Here are four trends influencing student mobility that set the stage for the international education sector’s continued recovery in 2022 and beyond.
Living through the global COVID-19 pandemic has given all of us a fresh perspective on life. For Gen Z, coming of age under lockdown has coincided with constant exposure to online conversations around issues such as economic inequality, racism and climate change as well as an ongoing navigation of disinformation. Together, these experiences have profoundly shaped how they view their future — especially when it comes to higher education.
INTO recently undertook a survey of Gen Z students worldwide who plan to or currently study abroad. Our research shows a generational shift. Prospective and new international students are more discerning and more focused on making a difference than the cohorts that came before them, looking at their opportunities to study abroad through lenses different to those used by their predecessors. Nearly three quarters of them believe that a university’s capacity to give them the skills they need for their future is more important than its ranking, and they are considering institutions’ track records on social issues as they complete applications.
The world over, Gen Zers are emerging from the last 18 months clear-eyed about the need for a better, greener, more equitable future — and the importance of an international degree in helping them realise it.
The international education sector is no stranger to shocks to student mobility. In INTO’s 15-year history alone, global crises ranging from the Great Recession of 2008, to the 2012 MERS outbreak, to the 2014/15 drop in oil prices, have all affected mobility patterns. However, market conditions have rebounded after each of these challenges, driven by study abroad aspirants’ enduring enthusiasm for cultural exploration, for personal and professional development; in short, for life-changing educational experiences.
In June 2021, INTO conducted a global survey of international students who currently hold offers from our partner universities in the UK and the US, gauging their attitudes toward studying abroad in the context of COVID-19. The vast majority of respondents indicated they were confident and excited to start their studies this autumn—proof that, whilst crises like the pandemic erect barriers to international student mobility, they do not quash demand. Now more than ever, we must not lose sight of just how powerful students’ motivations to study abroad are, for it is those motivations that will serve as levers recovery in 2021 and beyond.