Opportunities for international recruitment post-pandemic

United States international student enrolments this fall semester dropped by more than 40% amid COVID-19 disruptions, but even before the pandemic, international students were beginning to look elsewhere for an education.

We all knew that international student enrolments at US universities would be down this term as a result of the pandemic – the recent Open Doors Report has confirmed this supposition. But what happens after the dust clears? How will US institutions gain traction with students who have been mulling their study abroad plans from the sidelines?

The Open Doors Report released by the Institute of International Education contained a ‘snapshot’ survey of 700 US colleges and universities that indicated a 43% decline in new international enrolments for the current semester, with a 16% fall in international enrolments overall.

After a jittery year of travel bans, visa office closures, cancelled standardised test dates and infection spikes across the country, it’s not hard to see why this would be the outcome.

Ongoing trends

However, it would be unproductive to look at the pandemic as a temporary variable and think that once the global health crisis abates, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief and return to ‘normal’.

When examining the Open Doors enrolment trends for the 2019-20 academic year – which was largely untouched by the pandemic, save for the disrupted spring semester – there was a 1.8% drop in international students. Certainly, international students in the US still number above one million, but the proportion from China grew by less than 1% while the student cohort from India actually decreased by 4.4%.

The Indian student drop is important to note, for a number of reasons. There’s been an institutional pivot towards India as US colleges and universities seek to wean themselves off China as their main – and often only – source country.

Demographic factors support this switch, with India’s population forecast to expand beyond China’s by 2027, becoming the world’s largest.

While India has the world’s biggest youth population, with 356 million 10- to 24-year-olds, South Asia is home to 627 million people under the age of 18. These numbers suggest that most of our future global talent will hail from this region in the world. That’s all the more reason to engage with these prospective students.

However, solid demographic factors underscoring India and South Asia as recruitment markets cannot overcome a lack of strategy.

Many universities remain complacent with their outreach, simply doing the same thing as they were five years ago: coming to India for a series of fairs with a ready-made list of recruitment activities.

At one point, these universities may have been the only game in town. But now there are many countries competing for the same students, with five or six other very strong and compelling propositions globally.


The question is how US universities will, individually, respond to the opportunity and the competition before them. With a pause in international enrolments, which has given students time to consider all their options, there is a chance to reorder the mix and institutions that have struggled in the past now have a chance to get ahead of those that dominated the landscape before.

It’s important that US institutions look at how student decision-making is evolving in a post-pandemic environment. If you are not addressing the changing demands and needs of an Indian student in 2021 and beyond, you’re not going to thrive.

Every university worldwide has been hurting and will come roaring back in 2021 with every trick in the book to try and draw applicants. Universities are going to see very strong application demand, but they should be paying attention to the conversion of that demand and not just assume the yield is going to be the same as it has always been.

With the pandemic, students have had much longer to think about, and more time to apply to, different universities in a variety of countries.

The US will face many challenges, including affordability, with university tuition fees usually significantly higher than in competitor countries.

Going hybrid

Universities need to come up with innovative new models to attract international students through hybrid learning, putting partnerships together and creating pathways from online classes to US campuses.

There is an online learning population out there that hasn’t been tapped and institutions should be looking at strategic channels to leverage a hybrid offer.

For example, an online hybrid learning environment where a student can do a year online from their home country and then in-person classes at a US university campus could help cut tuition fees. By being flexible and innovative, a huge potential target population can be opened up.

Lastly, recruitment strategies need to be comprehensive and not rely on a single channel. Education USA fairs in India, for example, should be combined with aggressive digital outreach. Institutions should be developing partnerships with universities and high schools in target markets.

You cannot go into 2021 with the same proposition that you had for the international markets in 2019 and expect to yield the same results. If so, you’ll be lagging behind your peers – not only in the US, but in the UK, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

What it comes down to is offering a unique, relevant value proposition, not only to a student from India or South Asia, but from anywhere in the world. An amazing opportunity has arisen as a result of the pandemic, with a new set of dynamics. How adeptly the market responds will dictate success or failure, not just for the next year, but well into the future.

Adrian Mutton is founder and CEO of Sannam S4, a leading provider of student recruitment and enrolment solutions to universities. Mutton is an advisor to government officials in India, the US and UK and has a long history of bringing together governmental and education initiatives to promote student and faculty mobility both in the South Asia region and globally.

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