The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread disruption to the global higher-education landscape. Although the plans of many international students have been derailed, universities are doing everything they can to get them back on track.
There’s no denying that fewer international enrollments and staff redundancies have had catastrophic financial implications for some institutions. However, the global health pandemic has offered something totally unexpected too: a chance to innovate and stand out in new markets.
On 27th January 2021, Studee’s VP of University Services, Lucy Wigginton, was joined for a webinar by a panel of higher-education experts, as well as two current international students.
They reviewed what has been a historic first semester, and shared their experiences, both positive and negative, with universities across the globe.
The online classroom
Higher education is an industry that’s always relied on face-to-face teaching. So, when physical restrictions came into place, universities had to rewrite the rule book, and quickly.
According to a recent survey1, 69% of universities decided to switch some of their courses online. Rapid advances in digital technology mean that most universities have been able to recreate classroom experience from afar.
Although Gen Z students are digital natives, online learning hasn’t been without its difficulties, especially for international students. Due to travel restrictions, lots of overseas pupils were stuck in different time zones, meaning classes were often scheduled at awkward hours.
Paula Gomez, International Recruitment & Admissions Coordinator at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU), described how some of her students “had to get up around 4 a.m. in the morning to take classes online and it was definitely impacting their results and overall performance”.
To combat this, 55% of universities reported introducing flexible timetables1 so that international students could attend lectures at reasonable hours, no matter their location.
Shuffling semester dates
Some universities also adjusted their term dates in an attempt to keep campuses as safe as possible.
Trine University’s President of International Services and Global Partnerships, David Colbert, described how traditional vacations over Thanksgiving presented too much of a safety risk.
Instead, the University got students to begin their studies two weeks early, and “modified the whole fall schedule so that students could be done by Thanksgiving”.
Students’ return to campus after the Christmas vacation was also delayed by a further two weeks to reduce the risk of transmission.
While not all universities could restructure their term dates at such short notice, most required students to provide negative test results before they were allowed on campus. In many cases, university facilities were turned into testing sites too.
It’s now mandatory for students and staff to wear face coverings at roughly 73% of universities1. This is to help prevent the spread of droplets and, therefore, the virus. Although this sounds like a relatively straightforward measure, implementing it has proved tricky in some instances.
Gabrielle is an Ecuadorian national who is currently studying at Greenville University in the US. As a residence assistant, Gabrielle has been tasked with enforcing the rules, but he has faced some opposition.
Although some students haven’t wanted to wear masks because of their beliefs or ideologies, he’s tried to reinforce that it’s “everyone’s responsibility” to stop the spread of the virus.
How did universities help students quarantine?
In a recent coronavirus survey1, 44% of students reported having to quarantine after arriving at their study abroad destination.
The idea of being isolated in entirely new surroundings must have been a frightening and lonely prospect for pupils. However, lots of universities rose to the challenge when it came to supporting these students.
As Deputy Director at the University of Portsmouth, Mark Ovens, explained, “when the quarantine measures were brought in, we introduced food parcels, as well as a couple of weeks free accommodation”.
These measures were lifelines for students who were unable to visit shops or begin any part-time employment they had lined up.
Ovens also described how his institution hosted a series of pre-departure webinars so international students knew exactly what to expect when they arrived in-country.
He further mentioned the WhatsApp groups that had been set up to allow international students to connect and communicate, albeit remotely.
Such actions have helped students feel valued and cared for in these uncertain times. More interestingly, these steps don’t have a shelf-life and could be used to improve the student-arrival experience in a post-pandemic world too.
Keeping orientation COVID-safe
Freshers week is viewed as a right of passage for many students. It’s an opportunity for pupils to form friendships, get to know their new surroundings, and let their hair down before the term kicks off.
Orientation weeks usually involve a busy mix of in-person events and activities. However, this simply wasn’t possible for the latest batch of freshmen.
Ovens recalls having to “be very flexible and agile with our events, and move them online at short notice”.
Delivering the same welcome experience in a COVID-safe manner often meant hosting lots of smaller events in larger spaces. For instance, outdoor fairs, welcome talks, and movie nights were still possible if strict social-distancing measures were implemented.
However, many institutions moved their welcome weeks entirely online, with virtual tea parties, bingo, quizzes, and tours being amongst the most popular.
What does student socializing look like now?
Despite universities’ best efforts to create a welcoming virtual community where international students can get to know each other, this hasn’t always been the case.
Sanda, a South African student who used Studee to enroll at a US university, revealed that physical restrictions have made it harder for her to get to know her classmates.
Travel restrictions meant Sanda had to begin her studies from her home country. As well as grappling with time zone differences and losses in motivation, she often felt isolated.
“The only people I got to interact with were the people in class, but you rarely got to speak to each other”.
Allowing students to connect with their classmates is essential for their social and mental wellbeing. So, whether online or on-campus, universities must find a way to bridge the gap and foster a sense of community.
How has overall international student recruitment been affected?
According to the latest industry research1, 59% of universities reported that they had recruited either significantly or slightly fewer international students.
This is a huge blow to institutions that depend on international tuition fees for a large chunk of their revenue.
With the absence of in-person recruitment fairs and overseas travel, universities have had to navigate the world of online recruitment.
In a recent study1, 78% of institutions said digital events had become more important, while 75% agreed that channeling their sales skills through digital marketing had become a priority.
This is a sentiment echoed by Mark Ovens: “we had to go fully online with our recruitment activities, we couldn’t stop. We needed to find a way of meeting that gap”.
To minimize the damage to their enrolment rates, institutions have been forced to engage with international students in new and innovative ways. As well as attending online recruitment events, many have led subject-specific webinars, virtual campus tours, and introductory talks with faculty.
So, although the total number of pupils studying abroad has tumbled, well-executed digital recruitment strategies have been key in helping institutions claim their share of the overseas market.
On the flip side, the pandemic has presented an opportunity for universities to reinvent themselves and diversify their outbound marketing. After removing the cost and time of traveling abroad, universities have been able to invest their energy in untapped, but potentially promising, markets.
As Gomez recalled, “we attended online fairs in Nigeria, India, Colombia, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and so many others”. This is something that was simply too expensive for FAMU before.
Therefore, digital events have allowed institutions to build their brand and make their mark in cities and countries where they previously wouldn’t have had the time, capacity, or resources.
Since these events have helped to diversify universities’ international student populations, they’ll likely become a core element of long-term recruitment strategies, even once the pandemic has passed.