It is all too easy to get bogged down with the negative and worrying news we see on a daily basis. Brexit and COVID-19 have dominated the headlines, and many are concerned about the damage all of this will cause to our economy. The education sector, like many others, has taken a real hit this year as a result of the pandemic lockdown. Universities and private schools, many of which are highly reliant on the income they receive from international students, were concerned that students may not return in the same numbers.
In April, at the height of the pandemic, the Guardian reported, Some universities are already expecting to lose more than £100m as foreign students cancel their studies, with warnings that the impact of coronavirus will be like a tsunami hitting the sector... several organisations are now planning for an 80-100% eduction in their foreign student numbers this year, with prestigious names said to be among those most affected. The news out today, however, paints a rather more positive picture now that schools and Universities have reopened, and international students have returned.
Figures from UCAS, as reported in the Times show that rather than a net reduction in overseas students in the UK for the 2020/21 study year, there has been a net increase. An increasing percentage of those who have been offered places are from China; over 12,000 Chinese students have an offer of a place this year compared to 9,860 last year - nearly an increase of 25% The Times notes that student numbers from China have trebled in the last ten years, and students from outside of the EU have now compensated from the drop in EU applicants.
The number of Indian students coming to the UK has also increased to 3,110 (an increase of 22% o;n last year). The UCAS figures also show that more students are coming from eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania, which is highly encouraging, given that the UK has now left the EU. It will remain to be seen whether this trend continues next year once the Brexit transition period has ended.
While the increase in international students applying and securing places at British universities is positive for the sector, it remains to be seen how many actually come to the UK and take up their places. As the Times reports, experts warned that, amid coronavirus-related uncertainty, some students might not take up their places and the next few weeks would be crucial in determining how many enrol. According to Mark Corver, who represents the analytics firm, DataHe, who are assisting universities to make sense of their data, Unresolved pending' offers for EU and international students are around 8,000 higher than normal. He goes on to say, The proportion of applicants who have taken up a place is down for both international and EU. This contrasts with the sharp increase in placed rates for UK students. The difference may reflect travel concerns.
Another area of concern is that, as we have seen in the media already, there has been a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in younger people, especially of university age. Indeed, some are worried that universities could become the main generator of a second wave of the pandemic in the UK. This has led to worries that the British university sector has yet to put in place a robust strategy for dealing with outbreaks of COVID-19 if and as they occur. Labour's minister for universities, Emma Hardy, has stated on this matter that the Department for Education needs to develop and implement a blueprint' to allow universities to reopen safely. She believes this must include testing, digital access to learning, and robust public health measures on university campuses.
In response to these concerns, Universities UK, an organisation representing universities across the UK have said, It is still not clear how many international students will take up their places this autumn, and we have a short window to convince undecided applicants that they can plan with confidence to study in the UK. We have been working to make sure concerns about safety, the quality of the educational experience, and the mechanics of getting here are addressed.
Independent schools and universities across the UK have been working hard over recent months to prepare for their reopening. They have had to implement new rules and protocols, building changes to facilitate social distancing, reduce class sizes, increase online learning, improve cleaning regimes, segment students, and implement a wide range of other protective measures. International students have also been required to arrive at least two weeks early to allow them to quarantine before starting their courses.
Ultimately, no university wants to allow COVID-19 to proliferate, leading to the risk of an outbreak and potential partial or full closure. The latest news that social gatherings of more than six people can gather from 14th September 2020 will only add further pressure. While the new ban on meet-ups of more than six will not apply if for work or education purposes, students will need to adhere to the rules in their own time and this will inevitably dampen the spirits of thousands of students due to the impact this will have on 'freshers week'.
The news that international student numbers have increased is still positive news, even if some are unable to take up their places. Ultimately, it shows that there is still robust demand for British education and that the UK is still a destination of choice. The key will be to ensure that COVID-19 is managed in such a way as to allow universities and schools to remain open even if outbreaks do occur, and for the educational reputation to be upheld even in the context of Brexit. We will continue to keep you updated with events as they happen.
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