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Meeting international students’ expectations in 2021

11 December 2020

Bernadette Cochonat, Senior International Sales Manager, outlines some of the challenges for international students over the coming year.


Parents and students from all around the world look up to the British higher education system. With just shy of half a million international students, the UK is the second most popular destination for international students, behind only the US. Families plan their children’ studies abroad years in advance, saving for the perfect university that will provide their children with a unique experience and give them the best chances to secure a good career.

Planning to study abroad comes with high expectations in terms of discovering a different culture, embracing a new lifestyle, making friends from diverse countries, exploring new places and so on. All these elements contribute to that perfect student experience that make the investment worthwhile.

So how is the pandemic affecting students’ mobility at present? Will international students come this January despite the various restrictions in place? Although we can’t answer these questions with certainty, a variety of factors are certainly influencing students’ decisions:

International mobility

Restrictions in students’ home countries may affect their mobility, with international flights being cancelled or less frequent, or visas being delivered slower than usual. However, the situation worldwide is much better than earlier in the year when the UK was under its first lockdown. Although students may experience some inconveniences with flights and visas delays, these should not be the main factors stopping them from coming to the UK in 2021 – especially when attractive competitor markets like Australia and Canada have closed their borders to international arrivals and are unlikely to open them until late 2021.

Different approaches & different outcomes

The way the pandemic was handled in a student’s home country affects their idea of how safe the UK is.Some students may think that the UK has dealt with the pandemic just as well as, or better than, their home country and trust the British healthcare system to look after them should they contract the virus. EU students may also want to benefit from the pre-Brexit immigration policies and come to the UK before fees change in August.

However, students from China – who are typically more concerned about their health – may not be convinced by the restrictions implemented in the UK, as their country took much more drastic measures to contain the virus. From January 23rd to April 8th, a strict 76-day lockdown was imposed in Wuhan upon a population of 11 million people. The restrictions, extended to other towns and cities, resulted in over 57 million people being confined to their apartments. When the lockdown was lifted, restrictions still applied for months, including mass testing and strict police checks, but this has meant that Wuhan and China are now all but Covid-free. Life there has fully returned to normal, with no restrictions, and mass gatherings are now permitted.

Prospective Indian students, who are the fastest-growing nationality to receive UK student visas, are significantly less likely to cite health and wellbeing as an issue when considering overseas study, according to findings from the British Council’s surveys of international students over the course of 2020. The findings also showed that these prospective students have become more certain about their plans to study in the UK over the course of the year, and are more likely to stick with their original plans than students from China.

Perception of safety is different around the world, and therefore some students may be reluctant to come to the UK if their country had a more radical approach to control the pandemic. They need reassurance that, if they come, they will be able to stay with people who share their concerns and take all the precautions to protect themselves and protect others. They may be more reluctant to mingle with students from other cultures until they feel confident that it is safe enough for them to do so, and will be more inclined to travel if they have the assurance they can build this safe bubble around them.

Missing out on the experience

Students are now more accepting of online lectures, but they may still worry about missing out on on-campus experiences in early 2021. They may also be concerned that their opportunities to travel to discover other places within the UK or in Europe will be more limited. While some will be willing to accept this, others may be more reluctant to do so.

Positive signs

The rapid development and roll-out of several vaccines, and forecasts showing that the second wave of Covid will fade later in the winter, are boosting students’ confidence again. Although it is possible that some students won’t make it to the UK at the beginning of January, a good number may still come in the following weeks or months.

Ultimately, there are challenges for the January 2021 intake, but there is good reason to believe that international students will be interested in studying abroad in the New Year. Students’ behaviour may be significantly different depending on their cultural background, but international students need to be listened to and reassured more than ever. They need to be confident that they will be able to make the most of the situation, and benefit from the best education experience, while keeping safe and healthy.

Our latest episode of our Accommodation Matters podcast is on international students: you can download the episode here, or listen below: