What's Happening With International Students? This Year, Next Year and Trends

Unipol Student Homes

The UK Student Accommodation Forum – What’s Happening With International Students?

Thursday 13th May, 11 AM-12:00 PM

A conversation on current trends in the Student Accommodation industry - brought to you by Unipol.

Guest Speakers: Martin Blakey (CEO, Unipol), Matt Durin (Global Head of Insights & Consultancy, British Council) Julia Wang ( Head of Market Development (East Asia), University of Leeds)

Martin Blakey – Overview

  • Students returning for the summer term – government guidance released on 10th may 2021, as part of stage 3 of the roadmap
  • Students can return to campus from the 17th May, and are encouraged to get tested before they travel back to their University area
  • Students living in their term time accommodation should follow the broader national guidance which is from 17th may that no more than 6 people or 2 households/bubbles are permitted to mix indoors
  • The code would strongly advise accommodation providers to change their policies to fit in with this guidance
  • Education providers are required to have outbreak plan to respond in the event – those plans include the scenario of a localised outbreak in student accommodation
  • Although the lifting of restrictions comes very late in the term, it is still to be welcomed as it will improve the quality of life for the vast majority of students who are living away from home
  • It will also be interesting to observe as to whether any additional students do return to their accommodation in light of restrictions being lifted, particularly for campus universities
  • Greater social activity will now be allowed – overnight stays are allowed in groups of up to 6 people or two households, hospitality and other entertainment venues to reopen indoors, indoor exercise classes and group sport to resume
  • From 17th may different restrictions applied to students arriving from overseas (based on traffic light system in line with level of risk)
  • The vaccination programme has been extended to newly arriving international students who will not be charged for vaccination against COVID 19
  • Occupancy levels surveys undertaken in both March and April – there was an increase in average national occupancy from 56% to 69%.
  • Off street occupancy was more difficult to determine, but research showed an estimated 68% occupancy
  • What will students do in May and June? – many students normally drift off after their exams, however there is no sign this will happen this year for a number of reasons:
    • Students want to ‘get their money’s worth’
    • Better weather
    • Greater external socialisation
    • Opening up of hospitality sector
  • Many universities and Students' Unions' are keen to try and give their students some opportunity to meet others before they leave for the year – Sheffield SU are effectively planning a late fresher’s week after 21st June
  • Costs of Refunds and Release
    • Refunds – calculated as 98965 bed spaces refunded at 50% of average rent level for 12 weeks. Estimate cost of £92,601,693
    • Releases – around 5% of all tenants were released, 18,743 bed spaces. Estimated cost £94,938,309
  • House Hunting 2021-2022 – market for students moving into off street properties is moving slower (down around 10%) caused by students waiting to find out about their teaching options for next year
  • Lettings for next year in PBSA are significantly slower (down 15-20%) than normal with an initial reduction in retained tenants
  • Student preferences are favouring both larger shared houses and those with good outdoor space
  • Market is expected to continue slower until June, as many students are ‘holding off’ and are likely to make decisions on renting before they return home for Summer
  • There are concerns that owing to difficulties in international travel, international student numbers will still be greatly affected for the 2021/2022 academic year.
  • The Government have released their programme for resuming repossessions – impression is that it is business as usual from June. Further information will be posted on the National Code website in due course.


Julia Wang – International Students at the University of Leeds


  • Over 6000 international students from over 170 countries and regions
  • Current recruitment strategy – retain/increase market share, reduce over reliance on Chinese students through diversification
  • Top 12 source countries and regions include: China, India, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kuwait, Malaysia, UEA (Nigeria)
  • Mixed enrolment outcomes from different countries and regions in 20/21 – overall they are down
  • Arrivals: over 4000 engaged with welcome service, and had roughly 3000 arrivals to UK via charter flights/airport pick up service

State of Play for 2021/2022

  • Applications – Overall slightly down with certain regions up plus offers for major countries up
  • UG – Applications from China, India, Malaysia and Oman are up. Applications from France, Germany, Hong Kong and Nigeria are down
  • PGT – Applications from India, Hong Kong, Indonesia and UAE are up. Applications from China, France, Germany, Malaysia, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi are down
  • Arrival – awaiting decisions from students, these are dependent on several factors e.g. teaching arrangements and situation surrounding the pandemic both in their home countries and the UK

Beyond 2021/2022

  • Overall positive signs with hope to recover to pre-pandemic level
  • China is continuing to grow but will slow down
  • Indian market is potentially strong, however heavily dependent on pandemic
  • America has had a moderate increase but largely static
  • EU market has seen a minor decline
  • Potential growth in the Gulf/Middle East
  • There is a likely decline in the Nigerian market
  • Factors that may change the scene – how the pandemic unfolds, geo-politics (impact of Trump, border closures), government funding levels, UK visa policies


  • Still the main market driver for at least 5 more years
  • Strong economy/no pandemic case and travel free in China
  • UK is seen as a popular destination to study abroad
  • Undergraduate/pre-university likely to grow and postgraduates likely to slow down

Changes in Play for Incoming International Students

  • Health and safety remains a priority for prospective students – they want details of plans and measures that protect them against COVID
  • On-campus experience preferred from research undertaken with applicants – many holding off until they know what teaching arrangements look like
  • Interest in contingency plans for further wave of pandemic outbreak
  • Possible issues with travel to the UK, and the availability of direct flights
  • Arrival in the UK – what are the vaccination requirements and quarantine regulations,a dn what support is available for quarantine related costs
  • Accessibility of support: medical service, linguistic, social, emotional/psychological
  • Concerns over discrimination/racism,

Implications on Accommodation Sector

  • Flexibility in accommodation contracts – students want ability to delay contracts if they cannot arrive on time
  • Good level of internet access/speed
  • Detailed safety measures against COVID 19
  • Any rules/plans for use of common areas
  • COVID safe social events
  • More details on the process if someone tests positive
  • Extra support available – dedicated point of contacts for emergencies and student ambassador roles
  • Stronger links with student societies to help form social groups e.g. Chinese students society

Matt Durnin, British Council – UK International HE Enrolment Outlook

  • BC ran a range of student surveys last year to understand student intentions about studying abroad
  • 2020 survey indicated there was a much higher rate of East Asian students planning to cancel or defer their study abroad plans, with a higher rate of South Asian students planning to keep plans to study abroad in place
  • Big difference in undergraduate and postgraduate student plans – much higher levels of uncertainty in PG students, mainly due to PGT teaching offer
  • The main reasons for students considering deferring or cancelling in 2020 were around health and wellbeing concerns – this was particularly high in China and Vietnam respondents
  • UK study visa issuance figures for 2020 show only a handful of markets were up; India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The rest of the world was down, with East Asia notably down.
  • There was a surge in Q4 study visa issuance which is quite unusual – however these were issued before the UK variant of COVID was well known and publicised, which meant those who had planned to come are likely to have altered plans
  • UK is in a ‘least bad’ position amongst major study destinations in 2020:
    • Australia’s borders are closed
    • Canada was technically open but they had huge delays in visa processing
    • US had Trump policy/rhetoric  impact and demonstrated a poor handling of the pandemic
  • UCAS indications for 2021 cycle very positive, but there are many incidents of students applying to multiple institutions so the numbers are inflated and makes it problematic to draw true conclusions
  • Other indicators suggest delayed decisions – Global Google searches for ‘study abroad’ are still flat and hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels. However, there are some areas that are an exception to this, as Google searches for study abroad from India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries have increased
  • Chinese market recovery took 5 years for UK sector after SARS outbreak – this was a small and highly localised crisis by comparison
  • China was at a much lower state of economic development – but the extent to which SARS disrupted the rise of outbound study is still notable
  • We need to be cautiously pessimistic, as numbers for internationals may not recover as quickly as anticipated
  • Longer term challenges to student mobility:
  • Passenger air traffic is a dependable metric for this – only 3 previous events disrupted this growth (September 11th attachs, SARS outbreak, and the global financial crisis), however none had the drastic impact of COVID 19, dropping 55% in one year which was an unprecedented decline
  • IATA November press release – “Passenger volumes not expected to return to 2019 levels until 2024 at the earliest with domestic markets recovering faster than international services. Airlines are surviving on financial live support from governments. Even after $173 billion of government support of various kinds in 2020, the media airline has just 8.5 months of cash to surivive”
  • Financial strain on students in the medium term as price of flights will increase due to less subsidy by international  business travel market
  • Online and Blended Learning:
  • Strong signals of student dissatisfaction with online experience.
  • Mobility and immersive experience still central to the international education offer
  • A small minority seem to prefer online3, but at a steep discount (usually more than 50%)
  • There may possibly be some shifts to hybrid models in pathway and foundation programmes

China Outlook

  • British Council Forecast:
  • China has been the primary driver of growth in the UK international enrolments, and the BC forecast based on income, growth, demographic shifts, and relative undersupply of top universities suggests the peak of Chinese outbound study could be soon.
  • 2019 data shows China’s outbound trend is slowing - the growth rate is slowing steadily to around 5% annually
  • Pre-pandemic there was a seeming surge of interest in overseas study – a further survey by BC in 2021 indicates the appetite is still there but lower than 2019
  • China economic growth is slowing but is still substantial – over the next decade income with steadily rise, with china forecast to add 99 million households earning about US$25,000 by the end of the decade, and increase of 92% over the 2020 estimate
  • Shifting market share - UK has captured students in the US pipeline more so during the Trump administration – this may change over the next few years
  • Chinese perceptions of pandemic handling – highly negative responses around the US, UK fairs slightly better but still worse when compared to competitors
  • Where is the ‘next China?’ – India is the only market that comes close in comparison, but there is a much lower state of development. India is a slow burning market in terms of development pace.

Question: UK Government has the International Education Strategy – it states by 2021 that there is a target to recruit up to 600,000 per year. Is the Government floating a target number or is there theory behind it?


  • It isn’t an unrealistic goal. It’s not a question of the number of students, but the number of right students. There is a huge demand in certain markets, however we have seen a lot of struggles around visa compliance, particular with India
  • Universities who’ve been working in that market for a long time (even when post-study work  was repealed) have set up solid infrastructure to pre-filter out applications and manage visa risk and have done well at this. The problem is surge in demand driven by post-study work, many Universities have rushed into the market without the support to pre-filter applications.
  • As a sector, if you have a strong immigration hook (e.g. Canada) the growth potential is limitless, but there are challenges to manage.