Remarkable shift in perceptions of USA
The third (and most recent) round of Navitas Agent Perception Research in March 2021 is the most comprehensive to date, capturing the views and opinions of nearly 900 agents in 73 countries around the world on the impact of COVID-19 on international education.
The USA was always the number one destination, and will reassert its status in the coming year
Throughout 2020, agents were reporting — through the Navitas agent survey — record low levels of sentiment and enthusiasm for the USA as a study destination. On almost every measure, USA languished behind the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
This is consistent with the USA’s weak performance in international student recruitment statistics over the last few years. More importantly, it reflects an accumulation of negative sentiment tied to a wide variety of political and social factors, which culminated with the storming of the Capitol early in the new year.
President Biden campaigned on a progressive immigration agenda and on his first day in office, issued a number of executive orders to revoke actions imposed by the previous administration. These included halting construction of the Mexican border wall and ending the ban restricting travel from 14 countries (commonly known as “the Muslim ban”). He also sent a bill to Congress aimed at reforming the country’s immigration system. More recently, Biden let a ban expire on H1B visas, yet another signal to the world that international students are welcome in the US. An improvement in the USA’s reputation for being a tolerant and welcoming multicultural society has been widely anticipated, and the latest Navitas agent survey shows that this change is well underway.
At the current dramatic rate of progress, the USA looks poised to reassert its position as the number one study destination for international students globally.
In the eyes of agents, the US government’s handling of the coronavirus has rapidly improved but it is yet to close the gap
Throughout 2020, the Navitas agent survey showed that the USA’s reputation for managing COVID-19 was marked by strong negative sentiment with two-thirds of respondents in the September 2020 survey disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that it had become a more attractive destination as a result. September 2020 was arguably a low point for the USA as it approached the presidential election with no clear path to victory for either Trump or Biden at the time.
As Figure 3.1 shows, negative sentiment has dramatically fallen away. Negative sentiment towards the government’s handling of the coronavirus in the USA is now on par with that of Australia, which has been able to secure a dramatically different outcome with negligible cases.
Positive sentiment towards the government’s handling of COVID-19 has also improved dramatically from barely 12% agree or strongly agree in September 2020, tripling to over 36% agree or strongly agree in March 2021.
There are two key factors that are likely to be underpinning this dramatic improvement in reputation. First is the monumental vaccination program, which commenced in the dying months of the Trump administration and accelerated under Biden’s commitment to deliver 100 million doses within his first 100 days. The target was met within 58 days and the Biden administration has since pledged to hit an updated target, which was doubled to 200 million. Second, the Biden administration has adopted a more conventional science-led response to the pandemic, and the adoption of more conventional policies has delivered greater predictability and normalcy in the COVID-19 response.
Figure 3.1: Over the past two months, the way this country’s government has handled coronavirus has made it a more attractive study destination – change over time
The USA’s reputation for being both ‘safe and stable’ and ‘open and welcoming’ has surged
Previous Navitas surveys also showed the USA lagging dismally behind other countries on the measures of being reputedly ‘safe and stable’ and ‘open and welcoming’. On these twin measures, the USA has also seen a dramatic surge.
The proportion of agents reporting improvement in the reputation of the USA as safe and stable almost quadrupled from 10% to 39% between September and March. Even more impressive is the USA’s reputation for being open and welcoming which saw an almost five-fold increase from 11% in September to 51% in March.
As a result, agents are now reporting that the USA is in fact considered to be more open and welcoming than either Australia or New Zealand. This is also reflected in agents’ much more optimistic assessments of the likelihood of students being able to travel to the USA in either the second half of 2021 or the first half of 2022 (28% and 51% almost certain respectively).
Figure 3.2: Proportion that agree/strongly agree that the reputation of a country as ‘safe and stable’ and ‘open and welcoming’ has improved in the last two months – Change between Sept 2020 and March 2021 (percentage points)
In reality, this improvement in reputation among education agents is not likely to translate into earnest recovery of the sector in the USA until September 2022. It will take time for the Biden administration to implement its new policies and for the visa issuance process, which is already experiencing delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to catch up with the increased demand for visas.