The Worst of Times, or the Best of Times? Reasons to be Positive About International PGT Recruitment
With apologies to Charles Dickens for reversing those famous lines from A Tale of Two Cities. My excuse is that I want to try and offer some positivity in this piece.
First though, here's a more negative (and, perhaps, familiar) story: The impact of coronavirus disruption on campuses and course provision will reduce prospective students' interest in studying abroad in the UK. Meanwhile, obstacles around visa processing and travel will make it harder for them to actually do so. International student recruitment will be substantially reduced as a result.
For evidence of how deep these concerns run, we need look no further than the recent announcement of a new support package, explicitly designed to mitigate the impact of reduced international undergraduate fee income.
But what about postgraduates?
Well, figures from HESA reveal that roughly 11% of first-year undergraduates in 2018-19 came from a non-EU country; enough to prompt the measures outlined above. The figure for postgraduate taught courses is around 35%.
These figures suggest that UK Masters degrees might be very exposed to a potential drop in international student interest – that's a hypothetical.
But they also demonstrate that UK Masters degrees are very attractive to international students – that's a definite.
What's more, UK Masters degrees could actually become more attractive to international students in 2021. There are a few reasons for this and I think they're worth stopping to think about, particularly if you have an interest in international student recruitment and marketing at postgraduate level.
Visa concessions will make it easier for students to study in the UK
The coronavirus outbreak initially played havoc with the UK's Tier 4 student visa system: closing local Visa Application Centres and creating a minefield for attendance monitoring during current or future campus closures. Students struggled to apply and universities were uncertain how they'd fulfill their obligations as sponsors.
Thankfully, VACs are now re-opening, but it's the other measures the Government has taken that are more striking. Students will now be able to commence 2020-21 courses via distance learning from within their home country. And, when they do arrive in the UK, they'll have much more flexibility to suspend campus attendance without causing problems for themselves, or their university sponors.
The full package of visa concessions is understandably detailed, but it can be explained to prospective students – and universities clearly stand to benefit from doing so.
And the Graduate Route will allow them to stay
The new visa concessions apply to all international students, but there's at least one reason why they may be especially attractive at PGT level: the new Graduate Route visa.
This new post-study work visa will allow international Masters students to remain in the UK and seek work for up to two years (or three years, following a PhD). It's confirmed for summer 2021, meaning that 2020-21 will be the first year a student can access the Graduate Route via a typical one-year Masters.
In normal circumstances this would make 2020-21 the most attractive year to start a Masters abroad in the UK for quite some time. The Government's visa concessions also take steps to shore up this appeal: confirming that students who begin studying by remote learning can still apply to the Graduate Route.
Brexit means opportunity (sort of)
It may seem odd to mention Brexit as a positive for PGT recruitment, but bear with me.
If we include EU students alongside non-EU international students then the proportion of non-UK PGT enrolments for 2018-19 rises from roughly 35% to roughly 42%.
The bad news is that including EU students alongside non-EU international students is exactly what the UK Government now plans to do. The good news is that they won't be doing so until 2021-22.
EU, EEA and Swiss nationals who start a UK Masters (or any other degree) this coming academic year will be the last cohort to benefit from fee and funding guarantees. They'll pay the same fees as a UK student and have access to much of the same support, including postgraduate student finance.
International students still want to study UK Masters degrees
All of this would mean little if the ongoing impact of the coronavirus outbreak had critically reduced interest in PGT study abroad in the UK. But it isn't clear that it has.
The popularity of our FindAMasters platform puts us in touch with huge numbers of prospective international postgraduates. Back in April we asked them what impact coronavirus was having on their study plans. 50% said that they remained completely committed to studying abroad. That proportion has now risen to 53%. And, of those who are reconsidering their plans, only 6% are abandoning or deferring – the remaining 44% are simply considering different courses or waiting for the kind of reassurance that's now being offered.
We'll be providing more insight and analysis from our postgraduate surveys soon, but it's safe to say that interest in Masters study abroad in the UK isn't just surprisingly robust: it seems to be becoming more so.
There's no getting away from the fact that the coronavirus outbreak makes 2020-21 one of the most uncertain years for Masters study abroad in the UK. But that doesn't change the fact that it's also one of the most attractive.
Prospective (non-EU) international students already recognise the value of a UK Masters degree. Now, new visa concessions make it easier to access those courses and to benefit from the post-study work opportunities that follow them.
For prospective EU students, meanwhile, this year is a final opportunity to benefit from those same courses and opportunities on much more favourable terms.
Many UK universities are already at work to ensure they remain highly attractive to prospective international Masters students. We caught up with Mark Garratt, Interim Director, Marketing, Recruitment & International at Swansea University, to hear about his university's approach:
Swansea University are putting in place a range of measures to ensure we maximise the opportunities to ensure international postgraduate students are able to come to study in our fabulous campus, in one of the most beautiful and tranquil parts of the UK. We will have a blended approach to teaching and learning, will ensure all our staff and students are safe and secure, and will give our usual South Wales welcome. So we are cautiously optimistic that we will be welcoming large numbers of international students in September and January 2021.
Here at FindAMasters we're also working hard to ensure that prospective international postgraduates are aware of these opportunities to study in the UK this year. Get in touch to see how we can help ensure they're aware of yours:
Tel: +44(0)114 268 4940 | Email: [email protected]