MSM surveyed 395 education agents from 30 of the most viable city targets for international students in June 2020 three months after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation.
“Agents are the first casualty of an unseen enemy”
Responding to the question “have you experienced a loss of income since the pandemic started?”, some 84.8% of respondents to the survey said that they had.
Just 3.3% said they hadn’t and 11.9% said it was too early to say.
“The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic has posed new and diverse challenges for education agents: restrictions on mobility and thus on their on-ground marketing activities, hesitation from students and their families, and the cancellation of events and edufairs that used to be a vital artery through which their student recruitment flows,” MSM said in the survey.
MSM added that as a result of Covid-19 higher education institutions are in a “scramble” to find ways to recruit international students.
“With enrolment numbers in a downward turn across the globe, agents are the first casualty of an unseen enemy, left with the responsibility of engaging students and keeping a pipeline of applications going,” MSM said.
Other key findings of the survey were that 46.7% of agents said they have needed to cut down on staff size, referencing an ability to adapt amid the challenges and limitations caused by Covid-19.
This downturn for agents comes at a time when students are facing great uncertainty and disruption according to the research.
MSM found that 57% of students are hesitant to continue applications, 51.4% lack an internet connection and 37.9% lack proper equipment (which was listed as a threat to application completion).
“Agents are an important part of international student recruitment and while Covid-19 has caused a temporary disruption, we believe that the demand for international education will remain strong,” said Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International.
She explained that it is still not fully clear how many international students holding offers will take up their places this autumn.
“We have a short window to convince undecided applicants that they can plan with confidence to study in the UK,” Stern said.
Respondents to the survey highlighted the importance of support from Higher Education Institutions- with 89.6% of agents saying they are satisfied with how HEIs have responded since the declaration of the pandemic.
“UK universities have been working around the clock throughout this period, both supporting those students who have remained in the UK, and those due to start their studies later this year,” said Stern.
“There are hundreds of examples of universities supporting international students, whether that is through remote access to student services such as mental health support, providing food delivery services for those in self-isolation, or providing access to hardship funds for those students most in need,” she said.
However some respondents to the survey said that HEIs’ responses could be improved – suggestions included lessening admission requirements, adjusting tuition cost and payment schedule and offering financial scholarships or discounts.
“Students [are] completing applications but changing their minds at the last minute to stay local”
One suggestion was that HEIs should lobby with immigration bodies to ease visa restrictions.
Co-founder and COO of MENA student recruitment platform UNIVER, Amanda Gregory, told The PIE that universities did not take into account the travel restrictions and visa issues, in defence of agents and the fall in enrolments from MENA.
“In MENA, (17 countries) they are all still in varying levels of lockdown with only Dubai returning to some kind of normality with borders open for nationals, residents and visitors,” she said.
“Even travel from Dubai to Abu Dhabi (both in the UAE but classed as different Emirates) requires a negative Covid-19 test before you can take the 45 minute car journey.”
Gregory said that UNIVER had seen “students completing applications but changing their minds at the last minute to stay local”, adding that these students had paid deposits and were prepared to lose that money.
In the UK, Stern said that the university sector is doing everything it can to support incoming international students and universities are working hard to address any remaining barriers students might be facing at this time.
“For example, Universities UK continues to liaise with colleagues across government to ensure that, where possible, study plans are not disrupted,” she said.
“This includes working with UKVI and commercial partners to ensure students are able to access VAC appointments in several countries around the world.”