Making sense of 2020

Early in 2020 – the international education sector was caught off guard. We did not know what to expect. Unsurprisingly, the severity of the pandemic and the subsequent impact on mobility meant that most expectations tended to lean towards an extremely negative outlook.

Since then, with the benefit of hindsight, we’ve been able to better understand how 2020 has in fact played out. There have been more than a few surprises along the way.

Phase 1 – A focus on safety

January to May 2020

The very early days of the pandemic were a distressing and chaotic time. The primary concern was centred on the unfolding health implications and the emerging basic understanding of the COVID-19 virus. This very quickly shifted to how governments were responding to the pandemic, and which countries were succeeding in the battle to contain the virus.

The Australian, New Zealand and Canadian government’s handling of the coronavirus certainly made them more attractive study destinations in those early months.

Unsurprisingly, that uncertainty in those early months also meant that many thousands of students were not yet committed to where they would go to study.

For those that were decided, there was an unsurprising shift away from the United States towards Canada in particular.

Phase 2 – A focus on openness

June to September 2020

With the passage of time, the pandemic started to become a bit more familiar, and less of a spectre to be feared. Governments’ handling of the pandemic was now less of a differentiator for destination countries.

As a result, it became apparent the Australia’s handling of the pandemic had lost some of its shine. Even though Australia had managed to maintain a very low case count, this had become much less of a distinguishing factor.

Canada continued to build its momentum, but it was clear that agents were starting to report less confidence in the ability for students to travel to Canada in the new year compared to the UK. At that time, the federal government had not yet announced that international students were going to be able to travel into Canada from 20 October.

The biggest surprise in the latter half was the dramatic turnaround in perceptions of the UK as a study destination. Agents were reporting that the initial challenges of the pandemic were no longer detracting from the UK’s reputation. More importantly, as student priorities started to shift away from the concerns of safety and stability towards the issue of which countries were open and welcoming, the UK built a commanding lead. At the time, the UK led the way in terms of expectations that students would be able to travel there in the first half of 2021.

The UK’s ascendency in the lead up to the critical Autumn intake was built on the ability to travel being highly valued, and underpinned by pre-pandemic attractiveness and effective policy implementation. It appears likely that there was at least some shifts in market share from Canada to the UK in that period.

These key trends were reinforced by the unique stories emerging from the different regions around the world. The UK’s appeal was particularly strong in South Asia.

Similarly, the UK was increasingly appealing in the eyes of agents in Greater China.

In South East Asia on the other hand, the pandemic response and expectations of safety had not yet eroded and continued to influence the perceptions of study destinations.

Phase 3 – The reality of second waves and the hopes of vaccines

November 2020 to February 2021

Late in 2020, our agents were reporting optimism for 2021. In particular, agents were predicting a moderation of the impacts of the pandemic in the first half of 2021, followed by a recovery to pre-pandemic levels in the second half of 2021 across China and South East Asia. The outlook for South Asia was particularly strong, with strong growth anticipate throughout 2021.

The next Navitas agent perceptions survey will test whether this optimism can survive the devastating second waves being experienced all around the world.

Despite these current challenges, we believe there are a number of reasons to be optimistic for 2021 and beyond, a theme that we expect to play out at our virtual Navitas Business Partner Conference next week.  We look forward to sharing Insights from this conference via this platform over the coming weeks.

About The Author

Jon Chew is the Global Head of Insights and Analytics at Navitas, and is one of Australia's foremost experts in international education market trends. The key theme throughout Jon's work has been the interrogation and interpretation of diverse quantitative and qualitative data to uncover the underlying narrative and meaning. His ultimate goal is to influence critical decisions through clear, rigorous and actionable insights. Jon's approach is characterised by deep technical expertise, storytelling, and a genuinely collaborative approach. Jon is passionate about education and is himself a product of global mobility having grown up in Malaysia and making the transition to university many years ago via a pathway program.

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