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How universities can win back international students

by Yavuz Yilmazoglu

This year, 2021, will see higher education institutions hit by COVID-19 looking to position themselves in the post-COVID world.

Institutions across the globe have been forced to take emergency measures both for their domestic and international students in reaction to COVID-19 and so have their governments.

Some of those governments have put their higher education institutions in jeopardy with their comments about international students. Some implied and some have directly stated words to the effect of “It’s time to go home!”.


We all wanted to believe at the time that this was said with ‘good intentions’. However, many institutions are now having to build back trust after statements made “in the heat of the moment” as they turn their minds to inviting international students back. We will see the long-term results of these statements in the years to come.


The reputation of countries is at stake


International education is and has always been a delicate business. It takes time, money, effort and patience to build perceptions about a destination country. In the long term this can be quite rewarding. They recruit ambassadors, researchers and friends of their country to spread the word.


However, it takes much less time to damage a reputation. Sometimes a news item, the way it is written or the things it claims, is enough to draw attention to a bigger issue. The good news is that it is scientifically proven that people forget events quickly and international affairs benefit greatly from this short-term memory deficit.


For example, there had been a dramatic 50% decrease in the number of Indian international students choosing to study in Australia in 2010, down from around 70,000 in 2009. This was the result of racist attacks towards Indian people in Australia. In 2019, 10 years on, the Australian government signed a memorandum of understanding on India-Australia collaborations and many reputable Australian universities launched India strategies to bring those students back.


Last year, in the wake of COVID-19, there were racist attacks on Chinese students in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, some of the most popular destination countries for international students. Chinese students began to feel uncomfortable there and some ended up going back home. Some of them completed their studies online and attended digital graduation ceremonies.


What is the ‘new normal’?


With the development of multiple vaccines, COVID restrictions are easing or likely to ease across the world. We are, now, talking about the ‘new normal’, although there are concerns about mutations of the virus.


When thinking about ‘the new normal’, we need to remember what the old normal was and use that as a baseline or threshold to strategise the future not only for international education but for education per se.


UNESCO revealed that there were over 5.3 million international students in the world in 2017. Although students’ choice of host countries was diversifying, the US was still the leading host with over one million students at its universities, followed by the UK with almost half a million students.


While more than half of those international students headed to developed countries, there was a consistent growth in the numbers studying in developing countries that is sometimes overlooked. Mostly, their strength lies in the convenience of their location to serve their surrounding regions. For example, the majority of international students in China are from East and Southeast Asian countries, namely, South Korea, Thailand and Pakistan.


Another example is Turkey which attracts students from the Middle East and Central Asia. The top three source countries for international students in Turkey are Syria, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. According to the latest Council of Higher Education statistics, there were 125,000 international students at Turkish universities.


International education winners post COVID-19


The mobility of international students almost stopped in 2020. While all education providers debated what was happening, the perspective of students was often missed. No matter what happened in 2020, it is students who will be the decision-makers about what will work from 2021 and beyond.


The international education winners will be those who put students at the heart of their strategy. This is not about ensuring COVID-19 precautions for incoming students, digital application processes or even opening branches in popular student-sending countries that are also emerging student destinations.


The winners will be asking the following six ‘Have I …?’ questions:


1) Have I got a plan? What does a good plan look like? Is there a good blend of creativity and reality?


2) Have I identified the countries we are focusing on with an open mind? Is it the usual suspects or should I be more flexible with my list?


3) Have I aligned with my country’s geopolitical strategy? Is there one bearing in mind that, sometimes, it may take different forms?


4) Have I understood students’ motives? Are they studying abroad for better work prospects, for a better lifestyle or just because it is fashionable?


5) Have I got the right programmes at my institution? Is it excellent taught programmes, a good research environment, career support or the whole living and studying experience that will attract international students?


6) Have I got a digital strategy which is wholly embedded in my institution? Is it sustainable or still part of the COVID safety measures?


There may not be a decade to recover from 2020 so we need workable strategies to manage change. This has always been a constant. If you can answer a minimum of three of these ‘Have I …?’ questions, your strategy is halfway there.


The institutions in countries that sincerely wish to welcome international students from diverse backgrounds will be those that prosper in the future.



This article was originally written for the University World News and published on 13 February 2021

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