Why The International Student Enrolment Crisis Will Unlock New Opportunities

Five experts from the world of international education explain why they think the international student enrolment crisis can become an opportunity for innovation.  

The statement that ‘international student enrolment is in crisis’ has almost become a cliche in 2020. But, like many cliches, it can sometimes obscure a more complex and nuanced truth. 

It’s certainly true that, in those countries traditionally favoured by international students in the pre-COVID era, the statistics present a gloomy picture. Here are just a few examples.

  • In Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union announced that over 12,000 jobs have been lost in the country’s higher education sector as a result of COVID-19 
  • A report from the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies earlier this year predicted that falls in international student enrolment could lead to losses of anywhere between 1.4 billion and 4.3 billion for UK universities in 2020/21
  • A recent survey by NAFSA in the United States projects a loss of $3 billion due to a decline in fall 2020 international student enrolments at US universities and colleges.

Our own research in July told a similar story. According to our own recent COVID-19 impact assessment, the United States experienced a 70% drop for those of our 2020 matriculating students who chose to switch destination countries as a result of COVID-19. 

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But in some countries and some sectors, we see signs that crisis is driving innovation and accelerating trends that were already in motion. 

For example, according to HolonIQ, the wider edtech sector has experienced a record six months of investment, with the sector attracting over $4.5 billion of venture capital in the first half of 2020. Looking forward, HolonIQ predicts that $87 billion will be invested in edtech in the 2020s, almost triple that of the previous decade, with exponential growth expected in emerging markets such as India, China and Latin America. 

This has coincided with COVID-19 causing a rush to remote learning on university campuses worldwide, with many commentators noting that 2020 has forced institutions to embrace a more digital-driven business model

Here at BridgeU, we’ve been in conversation with universities since the start of this crisis. 

Our university partners have told us all about their efforts to innovate and diversify their enrolment strategies in the face of -  sorry, we’re going to use that other oft-repeated phrase - unprecedented disruption. 

Watch: ASU GSV panel discussion: International Student Enrolment in Crisis

Last month, our CEO Lucy Stonehill participated in a panel discussion as part of the ASU GSV summit with some of our partners and colleagues from the world of international higher education. 

We’re biased of course, but the result was a warm, witty and insightful discussion about how both higher ed institutions, and their students, can and will adapt in this new and uncertain world. 

So what were the panelists’ predictions for the future of international student enrolment? And why are they so optimistic about this global crisis unlocking new opportunities? 

We can redefine what we mean by international education


This crisis has posed an existential question - what do we mean by international education? 

Is it really travel that defines an international student in a year when borders have been closed and international students have struggled to secure visas for their preferred destinations (the United States being the most notable example)?

Patrick Brothers, CEO of HolonIQ, thinks not. 

Watch: Patrick Brothers explains why he's an optimist

He argues that the traditional model of transnational education suddenly looks very old fashioned in this newly digitised world. 

The massive investment in edtech cited by HolonIQ in their most recent research suggests that, when international higher education does bounce back, it will look very different. 

In essence, this crisis will force those of us working in international higher education to innovate. Ultimately, Patrick argues, crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. 

I’m an optimist. I don’t deny the severe and very negative impacts on lots of folks – and students as well. But I also see this as an opportunity to redefine international education too.”

Patrick Brothers: CEO, HolonIQ

Universities can invest in new channels to target a broader population of students


Lucy Stonehill, founder and CEO of BridgeU, shares Patrick’s optimism. And if crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin then what does the flipside of that coin actually look like?

How do you reposition an industry that’s recruited in the same way for such a long time, and only prioritised one segment of the true demand for higher education?

Lucy Stonehill: CEO, BridgeU

For Lucy, COVID-19 presents universities worldwide with the opportunity to reimagine  their recruitment and marketing strategies and to allocate budget and resources in a more innovative way. 

Lucy cites the example of university recruitment professionals. The opportunities created by virtual platforms like BridgeU mean that university recruiters no longer need to get on a plane to the largest and nearest metropolitan hub in their target market. 

Watch: Lucy Stonehill explains how she thinks universities can innovate their international recruitment and marketing

Instead, edtech gives universities the ability to engage students in parts of the world that may not previously have had much exposure to their recruitment efforts. 

It’s not just recruitment professionals. University marketing teams have had to innovate too. 

“If we look at the US, colleges and universities have been reliant on pre-existing marketing channels that have never really been challenged. I’m thinking in this case of Collegeboard and the ACT. Kids this year weren’t able to take standardised tests, which I think people have long felt had their challenges and flaws in and of themselves.

Lucy Stonehill: CEO, BridgeU

Here too, Lucy argues, there’s an opportunity for universities to take what are admittedly more limited budgets in the 2020/21 cycle and invest resources in new channels that will allow them to target a broader population of students. 

Diversity & inclusion efforts need no longer sit separately from international student enrolment

Mary Struzka-Tyamayev, Director of the Center for Global Education at Simmons University, reminds us that, in 2020, higher education providers have not had to deal with one crisis, but two.

“We’ve seen this wave of racial awakening across the US, but also across the world, having conversations we weren’t having before. And this work around diversity, equity and inclusion that’s been happening in universities across the world has tended to be very separate from the work around international student enrolment.

Mary Struzka-Tyamayev: Director of the Center for Global Education at Simmons University

For Mary, there’s now opportunity for greater collaboration between those staff members at a higher education institution who would be responsible for diversity, equity and inclusion, and those responsible for international student enrolment. 

Watch: Mary Struzka-Tyamayev on the opportunities to expand diversity

In the past, these have tended to be very separate channels. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Why shouldn’t international students be included in an institution’s drive to expand diversity, equity and inclusion? 

Returning to the theme of standardised tests, Mary argues that they have too often been a barrier to achieving equity goals.

It’s not a system that’s equitable or accessible. It’s a system that prioritises those able to pay for extra prep classes and basically fund their way to a better score.

Mary Struzka-Tyamayev: Director of the Center for Global Education at Simmons University

International students may prove to be more resilient & adaptive than institutions

Like his fellow panelists, Kent Hopkins is an eternal optimist. The source of his optimism? Seeing the resilience of international students up close. 

Kent is the Vice President of Enrolment Services at Arizona State University and he explains how, in March of this year, ASU took the decision to move to online learning for the spring semester. 

Watch: Kent Hopkins explains why he thinks students will be resilient

Kent recounts how he was initially fearful that international students, as well as ASU’s  partner organisations and cultural attaches in regions such as the Middle East, would not respond well to the transition to online learning. 

Instead, he was inspired by how readily and quickly ASU students adapted and ultimately thrived. 

“I was so thrilled to share our spring degree achievement rate for students from every country […] We were so pleased that our students persevered and that they actually performed better in the spring of 2020 than the students who were with us in the spring of 2019. Our students changed. We had to change. Countries had to change.

Kent Hopkins: Vice President of Enrolment Services at Arizona State University

Kent also notes that, this fall, ASU welcomed 160 remote learning students from India. This is an increase from the 90 students that enrolled at ASU in the previous academic year. And, like their counterparts in the Middle East, Kent notes that these students persevered. 

In addition, some Indian nationals who enrolled at ASU started as remote learners, before transitioning to becoming campus based learners. 

“We are probably all eternal optimists because we believe in global education. We believe that education is transformative. And we’ve got to find ways to try to make that work.

Kent Hopkins: Vice President of Enrolment Services at Arizona State University

Mary shares Kent’s belief in the transformative potential of education in this crisis, and explains why she thinks international students are uniquely placed to adapt. 

The whole point of global education is flexibility, is ambiguity. That is literally the whole point of going and experiencing other cultures – it’s having that creativity.

Mary Struzka-Tyamayev: Director of the Center for Global Education at Simmons University

Traditional destinations will have to innovate in a more globally competitive environment 

Lucy reflects that, when she first founded BridgeU in 2014, there was a very clear and single pattern of mobility towards English-speaking, largely Western destinations. 

But in the six years since then, there’s been a lot of change. With every successive graduating cohort that has used the BridgeU platform, Lucy notes that more and more students are now choosing higher education institutions closer to home. 

“Higher ed has largely been a US/UK/Canada/Australia game for a really long time now and that’s led to, one might argue, not as much change and innovation.

Lucy Stonehill: CEO, BridgeU

Governments of emerging destination countries such as China and South Korea now have very aggressive targets for attracting international students to their own higher education institutions. 

This will, Lucy argues, force the universities in traditionally popular host destinations such as the US and UK to recognise the need to change and to understand that they are operating in a much more globally competitive environment. 

Watch: Lucy Stonehill explains how BridgeU students' destination preferences have changed

Edtech investors & entrepreneurs are eager to nurture innovation in higher education

Patrick predicts that we can expect a lot of edtech investment in higher education innovation in the months and years to come. 

Patrick observes that his crisis has made investors more conscious of the need for innovation in higher education. 

He predicts that close to $10 billion will be invested to back new ideas in higher education at a time when institutions and students are looking for technology led solutions to their problems, be it tutoring and test prep, or just expanding pathways into education. 

“It’s important to underscore that every founder I meet is putting the student first.

Patrick Brothers: CEO, HolonIQ

Education & learning are constants in a crisis

In closing the panel, Kent reiterated why crisis and opportunity are different sides of the same coin. 

Crises force us to innovate. And in the case of higher education, this crisis has hastened innovations that, if they weren’t in motion already, were definitely long overdue. 

Watch: Kent explains how change is a constant during a crisis

In the next few months, we’ll continue to share our thoughts and analyses on some of the innovations that we’re seeing in international higher education..

In the meantime, if you'd like to learn more about how BridgeU can help you connect with global universities, book a demo with one of our team. We’d love to hear from you! 

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