As the coronavirus takes hold across the world, the education sector, particularly universities, stands to be one of the hardest hit, with around 300 million students prevented from attending schools due to travel bans and closures. In Australia, travel bans for arrivals from China have prevented universities’ largest group of international students from resuming their studies at the start of the academic year, as well as students from South Korea, Iran and Italy. The Australian government announced on Thursday 12 that this travel ban would be extended at least another week. At the same time, governments around the world are advising their citizens to not travel abroad.
And that seems to be just the tip of the iceberg, with many schools and universities around the world cancelling classes and lectures, or even shutting their doors altogether to prevent further spread of the disease, including in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.
This has wide-reaching immediate ramifications not just for the education sector, but for the community at large, particularly as Chinese students make up such a significant percentage of the international student population. Schools in the southern hemisphere have been struck a particularly hard blow as the majority of Chinese students expected to begin or resume their studies this year opted to stay or return home for Chinese New Year before the start of semester at the end of February.
“The industry is worth $39 billion a year and if we take Chinese students out of that equation for first semester, you would be looking at a minimum $8 billion budget hit for the international education sector and the wider economy,” said Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia.
The coronavirus will also negatively affect international student recruitment globally, as study tours and recruitment events are cancelled, potentially stemming enrolment figures for at least the next year, if not longer.
In these trying times, it is more important than ever that universities have a strong digital presence in China to help keep students informed and provide them with the tools and resources they need to keep up with their courses. In this article, we look at ways universities can help manage the impact of the coronavirus on current and future Chinese international students.
How to manage the impacts of coronavirus on current Chinese international students
The impacts of coronavirus are far-reaching, affecting not just students’ learning outcomes, but also their accommodation, relationships, communities, and financial and mental welfare. Universities have to consider, therefore, not just how to support students and help them achieve their academic outcomes, but also how other areas of their lives might be negatively influenced.
One university doing this well is the University of Auckland. A comprehensive note published on WeChat shows the many measures the university is taking to give students the flexibility and support they need in these trying times, including:
- Removing the IELTS test score requirement ahead of arrival, and allowing students to take the test once they’re in New Zealand
- Providing individual study plans so students can continue with their studies while waiting to return to New Zealand, in transit, or during their self-isolation period
- Giving students the option to defer enrolment without penalty
- Ensuring students in self-isolation in university accommodation have access to online resources and systems needed to keep up with their studies
- Providing staff at university accommodation to help with logistics like food delivery and rubbish removal
- Appointing ‘Study Buddies’ to reach out to students stuck in China via phone or email, to provide a friendly voice and keep students connected to their lives in New Zealand
- Establishing a $2-million hardship fund to help students bear the financial impacts of the coronavirus
- Providing free summer school courses (including housing) to help students catch up
As shown by these extensive measures, it’s not simply about moving quickly towards an online learning environment to academically support those students stranded overseas (though this, too, is important). It’s also about providing flexible alternatives, and ensuring students continue to feel supported and involved in the community once they arrive in their host country.
What will remain of essential importance throughout is ensuring universities maintain several communication channels so that whatever measures they are taking are being communicated to students in a comprehensive and timely manner. Many universities have set up coronavirus websites like this one from the University of Sydney, to ensure there’s a resource for students to quickly and easily find the information they’re looking for. While this is great for students already in the host country, many students stuck in China are not going to be able to access websites outside the Great Firewall, so universities should also consider establishing a Chinese website that is optimised for the Chinese digital ecosystem as an additional resource. The University of South Australia is offering a great example on how managing your own Chinese digital channels can make it easier to communicate fast and effectively with their Chinese students. Universities should also consider using their Chinese social media channels, in particular WeChat, to reach out to students more directly.
Universities also need to consider how students can continue with their studies while in China. While the Chinese government has agreed to relax its internet restrictions to allow international students to reach university portals for lecture recordings and slides, among other things, this will likely only be a temporary measure. Universities will need to think about perhaps providing a more permanent solution, such as a locally accessible portal, so students can feel confident they can continue with their studies no matter how the situation unfolds.
How to manage the impacts of coronavirus on Chinese international student recruitment
The coronavirus will also have an extensive impact on international student recruitment, not just due to students being unable to undertake study tours, but also because education fairs and other similar events have been cancelled, and many standardised testing sites have been closed, meaning students can’t obtain the official transcripts needed for their applications.
According to a study by the Institute of International Education (IIE), which surveyed 234 US colleges and universities, 76% of respondents noted that outreach and recruitment of future Chinese students have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
This is somewhat similar to the aftermath of 9/11, which prevented many recruiters from travelling to the Middle East, and made it more difficult for Middle Eastern students to travel to the US. As recruitment expert Marty Bennett told us of the Indiana state consortium he worked for at the time, “We were still really committed to recruiting in the Middle East, but with an inability to travel there, we had to work out, how do we maintain contact with those students and show them that we still really wanted them on our campuses?” This led them to develop an innovative digital approach, with their first live-video college fair taking place in 2005.
Today, universities will need to take a similar approach – though thankfully nowadays there are many more technological options for online communication available to recruiters. Institutions are reporting measures such as hosting webinars and yield events, and working closely with local partners and agencies.
“What we are hearing that it is a multi-pronged approach,” said Mirka Martel, IIE’s head of research, evaluation and learning. “We saw that there is a really concerted effort to also have messages and virtual communications with prospective international students and international students who are abroad.”
Alarmingly, though, the IIE survey reported that about 20% of institutions did not have current plans in place for alternative recruitment. As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc across the world, it’s becoming ever clearer that a “wait and see” approach is simply not going to cut the mustard.
As with current students, communication is key – not just with students but also local partners and agencies in China. Universities will likely need to lean harder than ever on these relationships to come up with innovative approaches to recruitment. Again, having a strong digital presence in China will be key in maintaining contact with prospective students and their parents, and assuring them that they are very welcome on campuses.
Worried your digital presence in China is not quite up to scratch? Contact us today to find out how you can bolster your communication channels.