The global pandemic shook the world of learning, and in the university sector specifically, the international student population has been one of the most badly affected areas. More than two years down the line, many of the UK’s leading universities are still awaiting the widespread return of their overseas students. With many places around the world continuing to face lockdowns and travel restrictions, the future looks uncertain. Universities must accept that moving forward, the number of international students gracing their campus may never return to pre-pandemic levels, and so they must seek an alternative, long-term solution to welcoming these students back.
On the face of it, the desire among international students to obtain a prestigious UK university degree hasn’t gone away. Despite a disruptive period, the UK remains the second most popular destination for overseas students in the world after the United States. International students come to the UK to study because of its reputation for having a higher quality education system and degrees that are recognised around the world. It is therefore crucial that universities act now, before this attitude shifts. They need to find a way to offer a consistent level of education and university experience to their overseas population, irrespective of whether they are accessing learning from their home country, or on campus.
The financial motive
For many UK universities, their international students represent a critical revenue stream, and these fees must therefore be safeguarded. International students often pay up to three times the fees charged to UK students, and in some cases, more. In 2021/22, annual tuition fees for international undergraduate students in the UK started at £11,400 and rose to as much as £32,081. Annual tuition fees for international postgraduate students ranged between £6,500 and £51,360. In comparison, students from England pay a maximum of £9,250 a year for undergraduate tuition. Therefore, for universities with a high number of international students, the continued absence of the international demographic could result in a significant financial loss.
These fee structures reflect the fact that UK universities compete in a global market for international students. In a post-pandemic world where the ability for international students to live and study on campus is compromised and under threat, the goalposts are shifting. In the future it seems likely universities will be evaluated primarily on their ability to deliver a world class remote learning experience, supported by cutting-edge technology.
Weighing up the value of campus life
UK universities want their international population back on campus: that is a given. International students are an important part of the social, cultural and academic make-up of university life and their current absence is obvious. The local economy is down, buildings and halls of residence are sitting empty, and the cultural and social diversity is lacking.
Yet, how international students feel about travelling back to the UK to live and study remains unproven. With budgets under threat, it makes good sense to reduce the need for international students to be on campus, offering them a high degree of choice and flexibility in where and when they study, rather than pinning them down to a physical classroom or lecture hall.
A blended learning experience offers the much-needed solution, and increasingly, universities will need to demonstrate their hybrid learning offering to future prospective students. The pandemic offered the perfect opportunity to experiment and has proven that hybrid and remote learning can work, given the right technology and mindset. In fact, students’ experience of online learning throughout the pandemic has been hugely positive and a recent Citrix survey found that 92% of students were able to easily access necessary information, learning material, apps, and data remotely.
Moving forward, the focus for universities should be to offer all students a consistent learning experience, so that every student feels an equal part of university culture, regardless of their location. This might mean that international students only need to attend campus for examinations, for example, or for practical learning. Remote delivery of education will also create the opportunity for universities to access the best teaching staff across the world, as well as preparing students for a hybrid world of work.
The technology solution
The situation creates the perfect opportunity for university stakeholders to redesign their technology infrastructure and create a remote-ready campus. As a good starting point, universities should be reaching out to their end users and prospective students, asking what IT and connectivity they would expect to see when they begin their degree course. This should be reflective of the technology they are using in their personal lives, as well as the fees they are paying.
Ultimately, universities need to offer all users the same digital workspace experience, regardless of where they are accessing learning, including overseas. In most cases, students will be using their own laptops and so it is critical that access is made secure, without intruding on these personal devices. UCL, for example, is implementing Citrix DaaS, to deliver a secure, high-performance digital workspace to all of its users, where everyone is greeted with the same splash page and imagery, to help ensure they feel part of the UCL experience.
The sustainability benefit
The pandemic has significantly decreased international student mobility, and if universities can lower the requirement for international (and home) students to travel, there will be an obvious sustainability benefit.
A recent study by Citrix, exploring the present and the future of higher education IT, found that 45% of students factor in a university’s sustainability ranking when choosing where to attend. Also, according to the National Union of Students (NUS), which has been monitoring attitudes towards the environment since 2014, 91% of students are “fairly or very concerned” about climate breakdown; 80% want their institution to be doing more on sustainable development, and 80% are taking action themselves.
Change is needed urgently…
UK universities have had nearly three years of revenue affected by the restrictions facing their international students, and action is needed now, in anticipation of the start of the 22/23 academic year.
Creating a remote-ready campus will decrease the pressure on international students to be on campus to study and will instead offer them the flexibility they need to learn from anywhere. International students are an important part of university life, and it is vital that they can continue to study in the UK, whatever the future holds.