How will Covid-19 impact the number of international students coming to UK independent schools?

Dilara Cabuk, digital marketing manager at Gabbitas, says although coronavirus will impact international admissions, demand for private education in the UK will remain strong

According to the Independent School Council’s latest census report, overseas students make up around 5.5% of the UK’s total student population and their fees are a significant source of income for many UK independent schools. With the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, many international families are considering alternative options to sending their children to the UK to study.

Two recent British Council surveys revealed that international parents have differing opinions on how Covid-19 will impact on their children’s schooling. Although these surveys were conducted with university-aged students, the sentiment and findings in the surveys are equally valid for families with younger children. The surveys found that 40% of Chinese students were undecided as to whether they should cancel their plans to study in the UK.

With most international students coming from China, the impact of coronavirus on admissions will be felt way past September 2020. An imbalance in student numbers may last for several years with parents of those already attending UK schools deciding not to return their children to the UK at all or delaying their return until the pandemic is over.

In a worst-case scenario, international student arrivals in the UK this autumn could temporarily be decimated. However, from our experience advising overseas families, we know that the demand to send children to be educated in UK independent schools is still strong even during a pandemic. This could lead to a boom in applications once the pandemic is under control with deferred students arriving alongside new applicants.

Another aspect that comes to the fore, as the British Boarding Schools Network discovered by talking to agents worldwide, is that the UK government has been heavily criticised by the international press.

With most international students coming from China, the impact of coronavirus on admissions will be felt way past September 2020

The fact that both Boris Johnson and Prince Charles have contracted the virus made families question if the UK is a safe place to send their children.

One agent has said that the government’s slogan to ‘protect the NHS’ has caused international families to conclude that the NHS must be fragile if it needs to be protected. In addition, the UK has had the most deaths from coronavirus in Europe and the second highest number in the world. The impact is that families are looking at other countries deemed to be safer.

The only way for independent schools to counter this sentiment is to be hyper-sensitive on the topic of safety and communicate to the parents that there is no goal more important than to keep all children safe. Clear communications, empathy and practical support are all essential.

Finally, institutions which are agile and flexible will fare best. Now is the time for independent schools to heavily invest in their marketing and recruitment departments. As many parents cannot visit schools in person due to the virus, a professional, detailed presentation of a school’s facilities is more important than ever.

One way to present the school could be through an all-encompassing virtual reality experience. Another option is to use digital student recruitment fairs as many live events across the world have been cancelled. Making sure that senior staff are available for online parent evenings to answer questions in appropriate time zones is also key.

Schools with January start options and a teaching programme that can offer remote learning for part of the term, as well as schools with overseas campuses or partner institutions, which students can join until it is feasible to return to the UK, will receive preferential treatment by international parents.

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