Spring Hopefulness for 2021? Dean International Inaugural Blog

Three things fill me with hope for 2021.

First, the increasingly likely chances that a number of the recently-developed vaccines will be widely available, allowing a return to some (if not all) pre-Covid freedoms. Second, recent research suggesting that international students retain positive attitudes to those countries like the UK who have remained open during the pandemic, reinforcing perceptions of UK universities ‘open for business’. Third, that EU students are still keen on studying in the UK (despite the changes brought about by the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement).

Despite the national lockdown in which we now find ourselves, it’s important to look briefly at these positive trends. So, as we move into the new year, and in my new capacity as Dean International, here at the University of Surrey, I’m determined to do so cheerfully and optimistically!

International Student Trends

IDP Connect’s analysis indicated that countries like the UK, whose policy of remaining open to international students throughout 2020 has “strengthened perceptions” of being welcoming and supportive for many applicants. The combination of a receptive attitude, the near-universal use by universities of ‘blended learning’ approaches that mix online and face-to-face teaching, and the swift Covid-proofing of campuses saw students retain initial preferences for study in the UK. Naturally, students have had a lot to put up with. Quarantining on arrival, the challenge of dealing with differing modes of teaching, new formats of learning, as well as shifting expectations regarding local and national policies on everything from travel to socialisation. 

Students have proved incredibly adept in this respect, and as an educator, I’m particularly proud of the positive attitudes our own students at the University of Surrey, both those who come to us from various international locales, and from within the UK. The analysis flags up both the patience needed for students to deal with issues including quarantine and their overall “preference and impatience to get on-campus”, as well as the staggered start dates that students are now working to, including January /February 2021 for various programmes. 

  • What do universities need to consider, heading into 2021? 

Given the high likelihood of ongoing disruption, particularly for our international students, UK HEIs need to highlight their support to international students in terms of travel, accommodation, blended learning support, wellbeing provision, and ensuring a genuine sense of community. Doing so successfully requires joined-up coordination within a given university on the one side, to match the very real “ambition, resilience and eagerness of international students to pursue their lifelong goals” on the other, as highlighted in IDP Connect’s analysis.  

Grit will remain the watchword of universities in the age of Covid. While student resilience has. Been amply demonstrated in accommodating the changes, it must not be taken for granted. Perseverance is needed from universities, associations and the government, in supporting international students to come to Britain in 2021 and beyond. Students are seeking solutions to allow them to commence and complete their studies, so there is a very real imperative – particularly in the wake of Brexit – to ensure that the UK communicates strongly and globally that international students are indeed welcome, and that UK degrees continue to represent the gold standard of education.[1]

Universities UK echos this same goal. UUK Director Vivienne Stern commented on IDP’s findings as evidence of “the resilience of both the sector and the determination of students wishing to study in the UK”, with UK universities “working hard to welcome new students, to clearly communicate the experience new students can expect, and are being flexible where possible around start dates and learning options.” The announcement from the Department of Education that international students living in the UK and registered with a GP would be able to access the Covid-19 vaccination in the UK was exceptionally welcome. 

  • Preparing for competition 

As Dean International here at the University of Surrey, my sense is that both Covid impacts and Brexit changes will increase the overall competition between the UK higher education sector and its European and global counterparts. Being prepared for such competition means working in tandem with the government on one side, and key global partners on the other, to ensure a clear message, namely: the UK remains open for European and international students in delivering unique and high-quality education. 

European Student Trends 

Post-Brexit changes present their own challenges. The end of freedom of movement will impact on EU students arriving to the UK – and UK students intent on studying in the EU – in terms of mobility, residency and fees (with the end of pegging EU tuition fees to UK levels). Approximately 25% of the total international student cohort studying in the UK come from the EU, with EU students comprising roughly 8% of annual UCAS applications.

The key question therefore is whether Brexit will produce short and long-term impacts on European students’ attitudes to pursuing UK degrees. EU applications have unsurprisingly been declining since the UK’s 2016 EU referendum. Late 2020 analysis by UCAS for example suggested that overall applications from the EU to the UK were down by approximately 19% compared to the previous year (although this trend is not evenly reflected across all Member States, with Ireland up 30% and Spain and Cyprus reporting similar numbers to 2019). The UK has opted not to associate with the Erasmus mobility scheme, which may come as a blow to many HEIs and their partner universities in and beyond Europe. The UK government’s proposed replacement – the Turing programme – has yet to be revealed in detail. 

Equally however, analysis by Sarah Barr Miller of UCAS Mediafeatured in Wonke suggests that EU applicants are considering their options regarding the UK in terms of the 2021 admissions cycle. 70% of EU applicants for instance have indicated their intended use of the tuition fee loan previously available to them on their application. However, as Miller points out, tuition fee loan is uneven across EU Member States however, with applicants from key recruitment markets “including France, Germany, Italy and Spain more likely to fund their studies through private finance than the entire EU group”. 

  • Pluses and Minuses 

From these snapshots, a variety of conclusions can be drawn. From the pessimistic perspective, “increases in tuition fees, no automatic right to student loans and the introduction of visas” suggests a short-term and possibly sustained downturn in EU students.  More optimistically however, is analysis demonstrating “that there is still sizeable demand and desire from students on the continent to come to the UK.” Miller suggestthat more than 5,000 EU applicants had already applied for the UCAS 15thOctober 2019 for a wide range of competitive UG courses (including 1400 for medicine). So, while overall numbers are certainly lower 2019-20, key markets are bucking the trend, and more importantly, advisers, agents and counsellors alike have confirmed that demand for UK-based study is undoubtedly there, with “more students asking for support this year for an international application than in the 2020 cycle”, despite both Brexit and Covid’s impacts.

On trend, on message, and on time

Planning on the basis of a recovering market for European recruitment (at worst) or a buoyant market (at best), UK universities need to be clear about WHO they are in this new terrain. Domestically, we will need to re-establish ourselves as particular types of education providers; internationally, we will need to reposition this new identity in terms of established partners, and with new collaborators. UK universities with quality-based and incentive-driven strategies to attract both international and European students alike will emerge as leaders. This means putting together a range of provisions – from new forms of learning and teaching to scholarships, bursaries, internships and placements – to support all range of applicants keen on attending a UK university. 

What else? Like everyone, European and international applicants want certainty. Specifically, they are looking for reassurance as to the specific teaching and learning experience offered by a given UK university, value-for-money of particular pathways, student experience, and Covid-related impacts, including enhanced pastoral support. Being clear on these categories NOW helps prospective students this year and in the years to come. Wholly overhauled online Open Days, Applicant Days and recruitment fairs will be key to this process as they vastly enhance the visibility and engagement of a given university to potential student audiences. 

A welcoming university community 

I’ll write in more detail on the impact of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement to higher education and research. Our Vice Chancellor, Professor Max Lu has  already provided his insights on the Cesaer website regarding post-Brexit research and collaboration opportunities. 

For now, in my capacity as the new Dean International, it is clear that many tests lie ahead in ensuring that European and international students alike choose the University of Surrey for their undergraduate or postgraduate studies. In doing so, I and my colleagues are determined to deliver a welcoming, inclusive university community, made up of students from all corners of the world, keen to engage in the enjoyment and challenge of high-quality learning. As an academic who has benefited tremendously over the course of my career from the opportunity to study and work in Canada, Belgium and of course the UK, my own story reflects the quintessentially cosmopolitan composition of our UniSurrey university community. I am keen to provide those same opportunities to the next generation.

2020 has been a year unlike any other and difficult decisions may lie ahead. Yet, I take solace in the development of vaccines that have transcended national boundaries, showcasing the best of the human spirit and comradery as the brightest scientists from around the world worked together to deal with the challenges, we have all faced. This spirit of comradery and internationalism are what I intend to bring daily to my new role as I look to grow partnerships and build new bridges with higher education institutions across Europe, and around the world. 

[1]Further stats on international student recruitment can be found from the UK Council for International Student Affairs: https://www.ukcisa.org.uk/Research–Policy/Statistics/International-student-statistics-UK-higher-education