This article was originally published on 21 February. Since then, the spread of COVID-19 continues at pace and has created an unprecedented challenge for many sectors, including the education sector. But students still want to learn and we want to support the sector to be able to do that. We have updated this blog on 17 March to reflect the ongoing developments, but please be aware that this article is part of a series and you can find our latest updates and support measures at the bottom of this article.

At the time of writing, a coronavirus (Covid-19), continues to spread exponentially in regions across the world, with Europe now the main centre for infection spread, but all regions have been impacted in what is now an official epidemic. With travel restrictions still in place across the region, and additional border controls being implemented globally, the risks to international student mobility and recruitment are now critical. 

As most will know, China is a major partnership and recruitment market for the UK education sector. It is the second biggest market for English language training, and more than a third (35%) of all non-EU UG students came to study HE in the UK from there in 2018/19, with numbers increasing from 89,540 to 120,385 since 2014. 

The virus has taken hold at a time when international students are busy sitting language exams or applying for English language courses, main subject programmes and deciding who is their first and insurance choice. There are many unknown variables impacting how severe the issue could be, not least whether the outbreak will progress into a full pandemic. How long the outbreak will last, whether it can be contained, when travel restrictions will be lifted, whether Chinese students will be able to complete their school year, and how damaging the virus ultimately is, are all best-guesses at present.

For guidance, The British Council has published the likely scenarios facing the UK HE sector. The best-case scenario (business returns to normal by March) places the impact as moderate, which would mean that at the very least, Summer programmes are likely to be cancelled and recruitment disrupted. A worst-case scenario (the outbreak continues into the end of August, which is also highlighted elsewhere as the most likely) will be severe, with all activity disrupted and a ‘significant’ impact on all global student mobility. 

A precursor of what could be to come can be seen across Asia-Pacific, where the start of the academic year in Australia and New Zealand have already witnessed huge disruption at an estimated cost to their HE sector of up to £11 billion. 

With the domestic UG market seen as being somewhat stagnant, or even in decline, many are looking towards the opportunities provided by the projected growth from international markets, arguably with an over-reliance on China, to avoid an ill-prepared and late scramble for students. 

If this sounds like you, it may be time for Plan B. 

Universities will be seeking to increase resources in other parts of the world and review their 2020 recruitment efforts. How can this be achieved? And what can be done when budgets are already stretched? You need to act now so that you’re not left behind and facing your own student recruitment crisis in 2020. 

Supporting Chinese students and partners 

Firstly, we do not recommend abandoning your efforts in China. The UK is still seen as a fantastic and aspirational study destination, only growing in popularity after the return of Post-study Work Visas and the reaction by the US, Australia and New Zealand, but to maximise the opportunity, you will need to be agile and respond quickly. 

The market is likely to be affected, perhaps severely, but China is still the big international powerhouse, and those who adapt their online and overall marketing strategies can turn this into an opportunity, where perhaps domestic competitors will not respond as quickly. 

We caught up with Natives’ China Media and Marketing Manager Aaron Wang to get his top recommendations:

1. Be flexible

For prospects already in your recruitment funnel, determine now how you can accommodate late arrivals or even offer remote or online course delivery. The worst-case scenario would mean that you need a contingency plan in place now to prepare for a January 2021 intake.

Where possible, extend your deadlines for submitting supporting materials and test results, or look at how you can do more to support students with English language during their studies, for example by providing online and in-year English language support. The IELTS, TOEFL, GMAT and GRE tests have all been cancelled this February with more potential delays in tests in the coming months.

2. Look at your programme offer

Help students fill in the gaps and look at how short term online programmes can keep them engaged and enrolled. Institutions in China have reacted in this way, quickly and have been offering this as a temporary solution with the support from tech giants and under direction from the government. Don’t be left behind by your counterparts behind the great firewall. 

3. Be sympathetic, empathetic and supportive

To those directly affected, the impact of coronavirus can be devastating, and students will be worried about their health. At any time, it’s important to ensure that Chinese students and their parents feel safe (both physically and mentally) about studying with you. In fact, it is one of the top influencing factors when choosing which institution to enrol at (just below rankings, awards and employability). Given the current climate, this will be even more important in 2020. 

Closely monitor the sentiments and reactions of your Chinese and international students on campus and adjust your messaging and content accordingly.

4. Activate your alumni

You’re going to need your own micro-KOL strategy to do the work that your agents and international team on the ground would have done at events. Look at the opportunities and relationships you already have within your alumni. Chinese students and their parents will feel even more connected to your alumni, in a time of crisis.

5. Look to webinars

With many international recruitment fairs being cancelled and agents not able to return to work, the opportunity to work with your partners and engage with students is limited. So move online and create a content calendar that agents, partners and prospective students can gain the information and support that they need.

6. Meet students on their own turf

The importance of your digital marketing will increase in 2020. Prospects will need to be nurtured by digital touchpoints throughout the recruitment cycle and nurtured on key platforms such as WeChat (via DMs, community management and moment updates) and Douyin (TikTok). Being ever-present to questions and responsive to every engagement on your platform whilst turbocharging your campaigns with targeted and cost-effective lead gen tactics on Douyin, will be more important than ever before. And yes, you should move the spend that you had assigned to events into digital. 

What else can be done to mitigate the impact on 2020 student enrolment?

With the threat to schools and colleges remaining open, A Levels and GCSEs exams in doubt, and student mobility severely impacted, we predict that this year, Clearing (or whatever it may be called) will be competitive on an unprecedented scale. 

Most institutions will need to prepare to be even more active and ambitious and start planning and promoting now. This may mean increasing your budgets accordingly and looking again at how well you understand your conversion rates at each stage of your funnel, for each market. 

To mitigate the pressures on your budget, you can work smarter. Start now by planning early for Clearing and identify which segments and personas you are going to target and plan your campaigns accordingly. Get a head start by downloading the National Clearing Survey. 

Most marketers will be accustomed to conducting A/B tests on their campaigns, but in 2020 you’ll need to go beyond that. Our advertising experts have been working with our partners and conducting conversion lift studies during the test and learning phase of campaign activity. We’ve seen great results in a campaign for one London-based University, who has an incredible 183% increase in conversions. If you want to plan conversion lift studies into your Clearing campaign, you need to speak to your Planner now. 

And if you are over-reliant on the domestic and China markets, look now at the opportunity to expand into new markets. India is the second-largest and fastest-growing international market for inbound UK new starters in 2019, with impressive YoY growth of 42%. The US, Hong Kong and Malaysia round off the top-5. And, while the impact of Brexit is unlikely to help EU student mobility into the UK, encouragingly, inbound new HE starters increased by 2.8% in 2019/20 compared to 2018/19. Make the most of your in-country offices and your relationships in key or developing markets, and increase your activity in areas where your data and research indicate you will see success. Now is the time to be bold. 

The situation is rapidly evolving, so if you need any help or want to speak to our student marketing experts, get in touch

*This blog was updated on 9 March 2020 in line with the latest from World Health Organisation (WHO), government responses and the current climate.

* This blog was updated on 17 March 2020 in response to the updated advice by the Government and the impact this is having on the education sector at this date. 

It's now going on to the fourth month since the outbreak and WHO has declared a public health emergency of international concern. Further measures expected to be included in the upcoming COVID-19 Emergency Bill to include an expansion of various precautions to support the fight against COVID-19. Natives is taking all appropriate measures, taking into account guidance from the UK government and other official bodies.

We have invested in everyone in the business to have their own laptops so that we are all able to work remotely, and we also supply and work off of our own proprietary software, so that we can confidently confirm there will be no drop off in service from us. As a people-first company, we have fostered a culture of Accountability (Accountability being one of our three-pillared A, B and C values, alongside Brave and Curious) which will empower teams to continue to deliver and optimise campaigns for our clients even at home if the Government so advises us to do so. We are continuing to monitor this situation carefully and will update you further should the advice change.

Further information from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) about travelling to or living in affected areas is available here:

Further information from PHE about the situation in the UK is available here:

Article by

Rich Campbell

Head of Marketing