What universities around the world are crying out for is near real-time market data to understand what prospective international students think about studying abroad, as the first countries prepare to stagger out of the coronavirus crisis.

With some predicting that it will take five years for global student mobility to recover and student surveys predicting that four out ten prospective international students from Asia and Africa are having second thoughts about taking up study abroad options in universities in the West, the international higher education community needs all the help it can get.

So, a new interactive dashboard from Dutch-based Studyportals on changing student study search behaviours sounds very useful for higher education professionals struggling to understand the likely impact of COVIC-19 on global and local intakes of students this autumn and in 2021-22.

International student consultant Alan Preece

Alan Preece, the US-based international student consultant, certainly thinks so. He welcomes the growing trend to share what limited information is available to help universities “make important and immediate decisions to support current students while looking towards business continuity.”

Real-time data

He said: “The availability of near real-time market data, giving insights into the mindset of potential students, is a powerful support to planning and action and provides a resource that can be cross-referenced to qualitative data from other sources as well as allowing gaps in data from source countries to be identified.”

For anyone not familiar with them, Studyportals is a global study choice platform which attracted over 36 million individual users to its websites last year. These sites let students compare and contrast English-taught undergraduate and postgraduate study options from around the world.

Their dashboard is now freely available to higher education marketing and student recruitment professionals and uses two data sources: the dataset from by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering in the US, which tracks the number of reported coronavirus cases and deaths, and Studyportals’ proprietary dataset for measuring student interest in global English taught programmes.

With falling demand from international students for studying since the outbreak of Covid-19, we look at how to make sense of what prospective students are thinking.

The dashboard shows changes in website traffic to study programmes vs. outbreak death toll; student interest for programmes offered on-campus and online; student interest to different levels of education; the effect of the virus on each country and changes in student interest from key focus countries

In addition, Studyportals is conducting weekly surveys of prospective international students to gauge how many are changing their student mobility plans.

So far 850 students have responded to the survey, most from key source countries for globally mobile students, including Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ghana and Bangladesh.

Carmen Neghina, senior marketing analytics consultant with Studyportals, told me: “Since, we began the survey in the middle of March, 36% of potential international student respondents have told us they were changing their plans. This number has grown from an initial 31% in late March to 40% at the beginning of April. The number is slightly lower for students planning to study within the next 6 months (31%) but higher for those planning their study between 6 months to a year from now (42%).”

Reconsidering options

Of those reconsidering their options – 152 want to postpone their enrolment until next year or the year after; 128 were considering enrolling on an online course; 66 were now not planning to go abroad and would enrol at a university in their home country, 36 were considering a different country and 33 were not going to study at all. Respondents could give multiple-choice answers.

Will international students still want to study abroad after Covid-19. We try to find out...
Carmen Neghina from Studyportals

Carmen cautions not to read too much into any one set of figures as the situation is “moving at breakneck speed”.

But it is still worrying – if not that surprising – that the latest responses show that 40% of prospective students considering changing their study abroad plans for this autumn – up from 31% three weeks ago.

Chinese student undecided

Another worrying set of statistics came from a British Council survey of nearly 11,000 Chinese students at the end of March, which showed 39 per cent of respondents who had applied to study internationally, most of them in the UK, were undecided about cancelling their study plans for the coming academic year.

A total of 22 per cent said they were likely, or very likely, to cancel their study plans, with 27 per cent saying they are not at all likely to cancel, or unlikely, to cancel.

Of course, the impact on universities is likely to differ from one country to the next, and the way countries have handled their response to the virus outbreak – and the recovery phase to come, hopefully quite soon – may well influence students who have the world to choose from if they want to continue with their dream of studying abroad.

There are signs that this is already impacting on student demand, with the Studyportals student survey showing that 72 per cent of international students say they are sticking to plans to study in Germany, which has seen fewer deaths from the virus, compared with 65 per cent still wanting to study in the UK; 63 per cent in the US and 61 per cent in the Netherlands.

Better hygiene

The latest Studyportals student survey shows that 83% believe their travel options will be restricted and 68% think their parent’s savings will decrease because of the virus.

“Universities should also take note that 81% want better hygiene around the campus and 56% want online counselling and support, with 55% saying the application period should be extended,” Carmen told in my interview with her for University World News.

She also said that COVID-19 might be just accelerating trends that were already in place, such as the shrinking international student market in the US, “where at the moment it is almost impossible for international students to make a visa appointment.”

Closer to home

But one thing seems likely and that is that interest in studying closer to home appears to be rising, with searches for study options in countries like Spain, the UK and Germany rising from home and other European students while they were falling from Asia and Africa.

“Our data clearly shows that while interest in studying abroad is still there, there is more interest in starting programmes in 2021 or later,” said Carmen.

A similar message came across in the latest QS survey of students on COVID-19 and studying abroad. Just over half of respondents told QS that the virus crisis has impacted on their plans, with 46% of those now intending to defer or delay their entry until next year.

  • See my full report on the Studyportals and British Council research, headlined ‘40% of students changing study abroad plans’ in University World News, 14 April 2020.

* Studyportals held a webinar on their COVID-19 Dashboard for Higher Education on 16 April.