International student recruitment: navigating the Covid-19 maelstrom

Feeling tense about international student recruitment? Nik Higgins of edtech company, The Access Platform, outlines the results of a recent survey indicating how professionals have reacted to the maelstrom of uncertainty surrounding the effects of Covid-19, and their concerns for the year ahead

Here’s a statement: ‘The challenges facing student recruitment will have ended by the time Covid-19 is over.’ Here’s another: ‘Student recruitment is changing in response to Covid-19.’

Which statement do you agree with? Maybe both?

I should probably be upfront and admit that I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to words; grammar has a particularly special place in my heart. Both of the statements above offer equally legitimate equivocations on the state, and outlook for, international student recruitment. It just so happens to be the case that the first is written in the ‘future perfect tense’ and the second is formed using the ‘present participle’. The former makes a time-bound prediction about a future state, and the latter explains what is happening right now. Didn’t think you were going to be reading an article about non-finite verb forms? Don’t worry, stick with me.

Peering through the multiplicity of perspectives

The thing that these, equally valid, statements talk to is something that everyone working in international education will have felt, experientially, over the past couple of months: uncertainty. Everyone in the sector is making guesses, predictions and declarations about how international student recruitment is changing, and what it might look like in the future. The vast majority of these statements are well informed, authoritative and rigorous. The problem, for anyone reading them en masse, is stitching them together; peering through the multiplicity of perspectives and reconciling them into a coherent and understandable thread, a trajectory for the coming months and year.

This, like most intellectual challenges, is pre-eminently a linguistic problem. There is a wealth of opinion on the topic, all of it couched contingently in close, but ultimately irreconcilable statements. Just like those above. Is international student recruitment going to be ‘future perfect’, stable and resolved at a given point in the future, or is it destined for the perpetually deferred limbo of the ‘present participle’ – unresolved, ever changing, in flux?

Surveying student recruitment professionals

This kind of ambiguity is troublesome, but it also offers a fitting stage for language’s antithesis: numbers. Cold, hard, numbers.

We decided to try and pop the ever-inflating bubble of uncertainty at The Access Platform by surveying student recruitment professionals. We asked representatives from a double-digit number of universities covering three continents a series of questions about how Covid-19 has affected their recruitment efforts, and how they have embraced digital technologies or ‘virtual recruitment’ as an alternative means of engaging with prospective students.

We translated their responses into a series of insights. Feeling tense? Don’t worry. Thankfully these are percentages, not words. Here are the scores on the doors.

Before and after Covid-19

Before Covid-19, very little was being done in terms of online or virtual recruitment. 46% of our survey respondents said that ‘very little’ of their recruitment was done online, while a further 18% said it was ‘less than half’.

The effect of the pandemic has been huge – 82% of respondents said that their recruitment is now being done ‘entirely online’, while for the remaining 18% it is now an equal split of virtual and traditional methods.

Channels and topics

Among participants, 90% said social media was particularly effective, while 55% also vouched for targeted emails. Almost half (46%) praised the value of having dedicated web pages, while 45% said they were using instant messenger services or chatbots, and 36% cited the use of peer-to-peer solutions (such as The Access Platform).

When it comes to topics of conversation, the questions on most students’ lips – or, technically, at their fingertips – were around the effect of the pandemic on the start of their course. A sizeable 73% of respondents told us students wanted to know if they will be able to start their course on campus, 64% said they wanted details about how courses will be delivered online, and 46% said their prospects wanted to know how an online version of their course would differ from the in-person one they’d applied for. Other popular topics included details about social distancing on campus (36%) and questions about accommodation (27%).

Becoming virtual

Almost three-quarters of our respondents (73%) reported running a virtual open day since the start of the pandemic. They probably didn’t have much choice in the matter but this still indicates the ability of the sector to move quickly and continue to offer opportunities for prospective students to find out about an institution and have conversations with staff and students.

Of those who have run a virtual open day since the Covid-19 pandemic began, two-thirds of respondents said these events had been successful (38% said they were ‘very successful’ while a further 25% said they were ‘somewhat successful’).

Among those who haven’t run a virtual open day, no-one said it was down to a lack of technology. While 33% said they had no desire to run such an event, the remaining 67% are planning to run one – they just haven’t made it happen yet.

Future perfect?

Unsurprisingly, almost everyone (91%) who responded to our survey told us they were concerned about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on their international recruitment efforts.

Of those, 55% said they were worried that continued travel restrictions will cause international students to either change their plans or stay at home. The other 36% said their worry was that international students would look to other countries that are perceived to have handled the pandemic better.

This is really tough for international recruitment teams, as both travel restrictions and political decisions are completely out of their hands. It seems fair to wager that how individual countries go about easing lockdown restrictions and setting out detailed plans for the future of travel will be just as influential as how they’ve handled things so far. The remaining 9% were confident that Covid-19 will not have a long-term effect on their international recruitment efforts. Instead, they are confident that, once this is over, their international recruitment strategies and their key markets for international recruitment will stay the same.

This is the bit of the article where, as author, I am supposed to summarise, unify, and conclude. But I’m not going to do it. I’d just be adding another statement into the maelstrom of extant suppositions. I’ll simply sign off by inviting you to carry on the conversation with me (you can find me on LinkedIn). Among the authors of this article, 100% agree that that is the best course of action.

Nik Higgins is Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder at The Access Platform – a global edtech company based in London, UK. Its peer recruitment technology enables prospective students to chat to current students at their chosen university. It currently works with 100 partner institutions around the world, and has offices in the UK, US, Ukraine, and Australia.

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