Interview: The changing landscape of international students
19 December 2023
Bernadette Cochonat, Head of International Sales and Partnerships at Unite Students, has a wealth of experience in the international student space. We caught up with her about her own experiences, what she’s seeing in the sector right now, and what the future will bring in terms of international students’ needs and concerns.
Q: Hi, Bernadette. Since you joined Unite Students in 2016, the landscape of international students has changed significantly following Brexit, Covid-19 and the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. What else has impacted that landscape?
A: At that time, back in 2016, the UK had more limited competition in terms of study destinations. We mainly talked about the ‘Big Four’: the UK, the US, Australia and Canada. Each had different selling points for students. Students had historically come to the UK for the quality of education, but over the past decade, more countries have also offered a very good quality of education – it felt like the UK might fall behind if it didn’t react.
The post-study work visa was reintroduced as part of the 2019 UK International Higher Education Strategy, to boost the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for international students. It’s attracted a more diverse cohort of students over the past couple of years, but the UK government recently announced a review of the visa. We’ll be keeping an eye on how that plays out.
The pace of change gets faster every year; keeping up with new requirements and trends is a continual process. For example, the way we communicate and approach marketing has significantly changed – new channels have emerged for reaching international students.
In 2016, we’d just opened our office in China. The Chinese market was quite small for us and, though we saw opportunities there, there weren’t many established channels to target our audience. But as education agents became more knowledgeable, new aggregator platforms gained traction and social media like WeChat and Little Red Book became prominent channels for students’ research into international study, for example by searching for peer reviews. This prompted universities and accommodation providers to share more student testimonials themselves.
We’ve since developed a robust and our learnings from the Chinese market have helped us develop a more sophisticated approach towards other markets.
Going back to post-study work visas, we’re seeing some changes in regulation around international students’ ability to bring dependants to the UK from January. What impacts do you think this will have on the UK Higher Education sector?
73% of all dependant visas issued in the year ending March 2023 were issued to dependants of Nigerian and Indian students. Students from those markets tend to undertake postgraduate study and be more mature when they come to the UK. The average age of Indian Students studying overseas is 28.7, so they’re more likely to already have a spouse and children. Dependants can have a considerable impact on their choice of study destination.
Most major study destinations have been reviewing their graduate routes recently. This month, Australia released a new Migration Strategy with tougher English language requirements and an age limit of 35 for temporary graduate visas. So it’s not just the UK. It’s too early to say what the impact will be.
You’ve visited India in 2022 and China in 2023 to understand more about these marketplaces. What did you learn from your visits? Is there anything that surprised you?
I’ve already said that there weren’t many established channels to reach international students when I started. We found that accommodation in most cases was an afterthought for students. They’ll first think about destination, university and course, and it’s only after that where they think, “Oh, I also need a place to stay.” Very often the students would start booking in July or August, very close to the date of travel.
In seven years, that’s moved forward a lot. That’s thanks to the gradual development of university representative offices being set up in China, the sector working more closely with Chinese education agents, and rich content being shared by universities, accommodation providers, agents and students on social media platforms like WeChat, which are used in China like a search engine. We now see that Chinese students think about their accommodation more than six months before coming to the UK.
Going to India last year reminded me of China in 2016, in terms of the information that international students have when they come to the UK. Because that market grew very quickly, education advisors cropped up all over the place – but some aren’t really experts, so these students aren’t getting the right information about accommodation. Plus Indian students usually want the certainty of a visa and a student loan before they book.
So then they leave it very late to book accommodation. Sometimes they’ll book a hotel or Airbnb for their first two weeks in the UK while they look for something longer term. But in some cities there’s little available by that point, and they end up living in a room with ten other people because they can’t afford anything else.
There’s plenty still to do with the Indian market to make sure students are better informed, with good quality information shared at the right time in their journey.
What misconceptions does the sector have about international students? And what misconceptions do international students tend to have about the UK?
What we’re seeing from China more and more is an emphasis on value for money. Chinese students used to ask fewer questions before confirming their academic and accommodation choices. But now they’re better informed, so they check every detail before deciding. With accommodation, they care about location, facilities and service a lot more than they used to. Chinese students are very well-informed; they cross reference their research across several channels and expect fast responses to their questions.
They’re also more flexible with their study destination now. In the past, if a Chinese student didn’t get accepted to a top UK university, they’d go to their insurance choice – a slightly lower-ranked UK university. But now, if they don’t get accepted by a top UK university, they’ll go to a very good university – in Australia, for example.
We can also see a consolidation of Chinese students towards high ranking institutions. The Chinese government is who graduate from the world’s top 100 ranked universities and return to China, so university rankings are increasingly important. Even if Chinese student numbers are not expected to grow much more, they represent more than 25% of non-EU students in the UK – they will still be a key market for the UK, just with more of a focus on top-ranking universities.
A misconception that we see from Chinese students is their perception of their level of English before they come to the UK. For example, students who get a high score in the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) test may believe that they will have no problems communicating in the UK. But it’s a very mechanical exam. If they’re only learning to pass the test, they can be surprised when they arrive, as it’s harder to communicate in practice. This can impact their mental health and will to integrate and make friends from other countries.
For Indian students, there can be misunderstandings about the cost of living in the UK. If they’ve read online that they could make £800 a month with a part-time job, that’s several months’ salary in India, so they think it’s going to go a long way. It seems like a lot of money, but in the UK it doesn’t go far at all.
What do you think the next 5 years might look like in terms of international students in the UK?
I ask myself this question every day. Before Covid it was much easier to plan, but the pace of change has increased. The international landscape can change quickly; we have major elections in the UK and US coming up next year. We need to be very flexible and adapt quickly.
What we’ve seen since 2020 is that it’s not only the Big Four that are popular study destinations; they’re being challenged by new destinations. Post-Brexit, European students go to other European countries because it’s practical and they don’t need a visa. Post-Covid, Asian students prefer to stay closer to home since Covid – places like Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Countries like Japan and South Korea have their own international higher education strategy, and they have targets for how many students they want to attract from overseas.
Five years ago, we weren’t really hearing about other countries. The global appetite for international study is growing, but more countries will be ready to compete with the UK. I think the challenge for the next five years is that more countries are developing their own international higher education strategy, and the UK will need to keep up.
That being said, the UK remains an attractive destination with high quality of education, a high quality of life and a safe environment for students. Despite challenges from the Chinese market and changes made to the work visa, we will likely continue to see a good number of students from key markets like China and India and an increasing diversity of students from new emerging markets, such as those in south-east Asia.
Do you have any advice for the HE sector when it comes to appealing to international students?
The role of technology will be huge in the coming decade. Until recently we could get away with reasonably good content on our website and PDF brochures, for example. But the new generation prefers more innovative processes, where they can get their information in a very quick but personalised way.
They want the booking and selection experience to be immersive and engaging so they feel included as an individual. They want content to be delivered to them in more varied formats, like videos and user generated content. Recruitment processes could become more customised so that prospective students can choose what kind of information matters to them when looking at university options and HE institutions will probably need to rethink their teaching delivery methods to adapt to the needs of this new tech savvy generation.
Technology in China is so advanced. Face recognition is used at the entrance of university campuses to identify students and is also used for payments in some shops. The smooth experience of using super apps like WeChat or Alipay in China has created expectations that a booking journey, or an interaction with a brand, should be seamless.
We don’t have an equivalent in the UK and we don’t develop new channels at the same pace. My view is that the sector needs to invest more in tech. Once everyone else has done it, it’s too late to start. Technology will definitely play a big role in student recruitment and the whole student journey in the years to come; it’s a space to watch.
Finally, it would be great to know more about how you got into the sector. Where did your passion for the Chinese market come from?
When I was 12, I told my family that I wanted a dictionary to learn Chinese for Christmas. I have no idea why, but since then I’ve been obsessed with Chinese language and culture.
I studied Chinese as part of my degree. I spent a year in Preston at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) where they have a very good Chinese language department; later, I got a scholarship to finish my degree at Beijing Language and Culture University. After I arrived in China, it took half a year to feel comfortable with the language and have a basic conversation – it’s such a difficult language.
Once I was able to do basic things like ask questions and do my shopping, I thought it would be a shame to go back. I ended up staying for nine years in total. Working in different industries, I built my knowledge not only of the language but also the culture – and got familiar with all the specificities of the local business culture, for example, the different meaning and value that a contract can have in China, or the fact that in every industry, there’s an agent or middleman who can help to get things done.
How much has your experience of being an international student shaped your approach to your role?
When I went to Preston in 2003, the internet wasn’t as developed as it is now, and it was very complicated as a French student to find information about accommodation there. I booked online without having seen the accommodation and, to be honest, my worst memory of studying abroad was my accommodation. I was a third-year student living with first-years, and we were at different stages in our study journey.
But studying abroad and meeting people from all over the world definitely confirmed the fact that I didn’t want to go back and live in France – I wanted an international career. It takes you out of your comfort zone, it takes time to find your feet and be yourself around people from a different culture who judge you in a different way from people in your own country.
It changed the way I thought. It’s helped me relate to international students who come to the UK and anticipate the kinds of questions they’ll ask, or their parents will ask.