New year, new views: positivity toward US up among education agents in China and worldwide

“These findings serve as strong signs that US international higher education is on the road toward recovery”

Before 2020, souring diplomatic relations between China and the US counted among several variables that precipitated in a small-but-steady decline in international student enrollment at American universities, says Parves Khan, vice president of Market Research and Insight at INTO University Partnerships.

Compounded with the global Covid-19 pandemic and skepticism regarding the initial US coronavirus response, perceptions of the study destination worsened not only in China but around the world, contributing to what would become historic international enrollment losses.

Over the course of 2021, INTO conducted two global surveys of education counsellors and agents to gauge sentiment toward different destination countries as the pandemic continued — one in spring, and one in fall. The surveys show that, in the last year, perceptions of the US as a study destination have improved significantly in the China, Hong Kong and Macau region, and across the globe. Simultaneously, the latest Open Doors and visa issuance data suggest student demand is rebounding, too.

Although the emergence of the Omicron variant has renewed anxieties around international educational exchange — more so in some regions than others — these findings serve as strong signs that US international higher education is on the road toward recovery.

Over the course of March 2021, 744 agents took part in the first of two global INTO surveys measuring sentiment toward study destinations in the context of Covid-19. Of the 744, 240 were based in the CHKM region. At the time, just 40% of agents worldwide felt positive about how the US was managing quarantine regulations, 44% felt positive about how welcoming and safe the US was for international students, and 57% felt positive about the US vaccine rollout.

In the CHKM region, agent sentiment toward the US was abysmal — 6% felt positive about quarantine regulations, 25% felt positive about safety, and 40% felt positive about the vaccine rollout. Meanwhile, 39% of agents globally felt positive about how open US borders were to international students, a proportion which fell to 11% among agents in the CHKM region.

The second survey, carried out in November 2021, captured feedback from 1,126 agents around the world, 206 of whom are based in the CHKM region. This survey paints a dramatically more positive picture. Globally, 66% of agents feel positive about US quarantine regulations — an improvement of 26 percentage points from spring. At the same time, 70% of agents feel positive about how welcoming and safe the US is for international students, and three quarters — 75% — feel positive about the vaccine rollout — up 26 and 19 percentage points, respectively.

A pronounced change has occurred among agents in the CHKM region. Over one quarter — 27% — express positivity about US quarantine regulations, 37% about US welcome and safety, and 53% about the US vaccine rollout — improvements of 21, 13 and 13 percentage points, respectively. For both groups of agents, the greatest improvement in sentiment concerns border openness. Globally, 73% of agents feel positive about US border openness, and in the CHKM region, 47% feel positive. That amounts to increases of 34 and 36 percentage points, respectively, in just nine months.

It is important to note that our November 2021 survey was carried out before the emergence of the Omicron variant, which has thrown the world a curveball and raised questions around the international education sector’s immediate recovery. Still, our survey offers insight into how agents and students will approach study in the US amid this new phase of the pandemic.

Worldwide, improved agent perception of US vaccine rollout and safety is a positive sign that demand will persist. In China, high vaccination rates amongst young city-dwellers, combined with the lower risk of severe illness associated with Omicron, may also make students and parents less wary of traveling overseas.

On the other hand, agents in the CHKM region are more concerned about future spread of disease than their global peers. Nearly one third of agents in the region — 31% — think that future pandemics will have the greatest impact on study abroad decision-making in the next five years, compared to 16% of agents globally. In addition, so long as China continues to pursue a zero-Covid strategy, students and parents are likely to remain cautious.

Apart from Covid-19, the other significant variable at play continues to be political tensions between China and the US. This is of clear concern among agents in the CHKM region, 25% of whom think geo-political relations will have the greatest impact on study abroad decision-making in the next five years, compared to just 7% of agents worldwide.

Moving forward, much depends on how the Biden administration manages the new wave of the pandemic and the delicate relationship between the two nations. Policies that prioritise foreign students and their safety will be integral to giving study abroad aspirants and their parents peace of mind, to protecting the gains made in positive sentiment worldwide, and to promote US international higher education’s continued recovery in 2022.

Read the full report on the November 2021 INTO global agent survey here.

About the author: Dr. Parves Khan is Vice President, Market Research and Insight, for INTO University Partnerships. Over a career that has lasted more than 25 years, she has run her own research consultancy, transformed the research and insight function at digital-first insurance company Ageas, and, most recently before INTO, led global research and insight at Pearson. Parves has been designated as one of the Iconic Women Creating a Better World for All by the Women Economic Forum (WEF), and she counts among Women in Data UK’s Twenty in Data and Technology 2020. She holds a BSc, Political Science and Government, from the University of Wales, Cardiff, and a PhD, European Union Integration, from the University of Bristol.