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Steps educational institutions can take to weather the Covid-19 storm

The education sector today is facing unprecedented challenges due to the global pandemic. In response, we are seeing educational institutions around the world introduce new and innovative procedures to adapt to this period of uncertainty so that they continue to meet the needs of their students.

Educational institutions around the world introduce new and innovative procedures to adapt to this period of uncertainty
Educational institutions around the world introduce new and innovative procedures to adapt to this period of uncertainty

International students across the education sector have been dramatically impacted by the spread of the pandemic – from travel restrictions to social distancing, isolation measures, quarantines, campus closures, and border closures. As the growing COVID-19 outbreak triggers economic uncertainty across the globe, the enrollment of international students at educational institutions may see significant declines in the near future.

International applicants are unsure if they will be able to enter the country they choose to study in and now face particular challenges in their access to foreign education. Educational institutions are working tirelessly to ensure that students and scholars remain safe and to make sure that students have continued access to education.

Here are some considerations that educational institutions should address to adapt to this new normal during this pandemic:

1. Shifting to online classes

At this time of growing economic stress resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak, with cities under quarantine, institutions around the globe are looking to migrate all their classes online to maintain academic continuity. A study run at the end of March showed that 58% of prospective international students expressed some interest in studying their degree online due to coronavirus restrictions, while only 42% stated that they had no interest in studying online.

However, the transition to online learning is not without challenges for some students, who may lack suitable environments for remote learning. Others may experience challenges related to differences in time zones. In China, some schools are making courses accessible over mobile phone, because students may be stuck at home without laptops or other appropriate technology.

Because of bandwidth issues, professors are determining ways to engage students by using the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat or by posting videos.

2. Helping your international students

Given the rapidly changing nature of the situation, many educational institutions have been pushed to suspend international travel and close campuses to students. For many students, being forced to cut their semesters short is a devastating development. With many international students being away from their families, under lockdown and social distancing, there may be concerns about students’ mental health, and institutions should focus on providing as much support as possible.

In the face of massive disruptions to their learning and work routines, international students may become overwhelmed by anxiety and uncertainty that can come with social isolation. This is particularly important for international students, who already find themselves in a foreign country. With institutions needing to place a greater emphasis on students’ emotional wellbeing, some are offering online mental health support special counseling services and, in some cases, hotlines. Ultimately, the institution’s primary concern should remain the well-being of their students, teachers and staff.

3. Revised student recruitment strategy

With mass university and college closures in an increasing number of countries, concerns about the impact on future international student enrollments are growing. Outreach and recruiting events in some of the key countries like China and India have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak, including in-person fairs, tests, and other student engagements. Unsurprisingly digital and online are becoming more vital as the coronavirus forces students and institutions to meet and communicate through digital means. A recent study showed that 75% of interviewed institutions shifted to digital recruiting events and 73% to digital marketing.

International recruiters are going to have to adapt and consider new strategies for managing reductions in new international enrollments. To address these shifts in student recruitment, a current study showed that 34% of institutions were currently looking to diversify the source countries which they relied on for recruitment purposes.

Although some countries have historically experienced stricter student visa restrictions that affected international student enrollment, governments will likely have to find more relaxed policies and supportive measures to help the education sector. Whether that will be enough to make an impact is a different question.

4. Flexible admissions process

The coronavirus pandemic also has brought postponements and cancellations of the SAT and ACT tests, and some institutions have begun dropping the standardized exams from their admissions processes. Institutions are also looking to create more flexible admissions processes to attract prospective international students. Some are responding by leveraging virtual communications and webinars, offering online language testing, waving graduate entrance testing requirements, and offering tuition fee discounts.

As universities are trying to be more flexible with their admission process to attract international students, a recent study showed 19% of Universities have pushed back the start of courses by a semester and some have pushed back their application dates (17%) acceptance dates (16%) and increased their deferment offers (13%).

China, the top sending country of international students, has canceled assessments such as the SAT, graduate school entry exams GRE and GMAT, and English proficiency tests IELTS and TOEFL, some of which are required for students applying to foreign schools. Some institutions are announcing that, beginning with the 2021-22 academic year, they will no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores. As institutions and international students are being propelled into this unprecedented situation, the sector needs to be more flexible and agile.

5. Student refunds

For many international students who are worried by travel restrictions, and whose visas are contingent upon their residential and student statuses, delaying their studies or pushing their current courses might be their only option. Many institutions are already refunding room and board charges for their spring and summer programs.

WU® GlobalPay for Students portal allows your institution to process student refunds in as little as 3 working days, depending on the country and payment method that was used. Using the WU® GlobalPay for Students you can issue full or partial refunds – even to students who did not originally pay via the platform.

In today’s environment, as international students adapt to taking courses digitally, travel restrictions or other changes to academic schedules, it is important that institutions deliver the best possible student experience and process student refunds in an efficient and compliant manner. Western Union Business Solutions helps educational institutions deliver an excellent payment experience to their international students by streamlining outgoing payments, helping them manage the disbursement of government loan funding, and helping to protect institutions from cross-currency risk.

6. Promoting social community

As the crisis continues, in a social distancing environment, fostering social community is vital. One of the steps that institutions can take to do so is implementing an outreach communication strategy to demonstrate their understanding of students’ circumstances. Given the uncertainty many international students are facing right now, institutions need to communicate clearly by reaching out with coronavirus-related updates and discussing the situation’s impact on exams, assignments and placements.

According to a recent study 39% of institutions responded that they were communicating with international students a few times a week, 25% were communicating daily or more and 17% were communicating once per week. The majority of institutions are using email to communicate coronavirus updates (87%), while almost half are using social media (44%), some are using phone calls (24%), and some are using WeChat (17%) for communications with Chinese students. The same study showed that 52% of international students believe that universities should set up at 24-hour helpline for students to help with communication during these uncertain times.

How fast educational institutions can adapt to this new normal will be determined by the specific policies that each country introduces to foster inward student mobility and global engagement, such as subsidised scholarships; visa regimes; support for student housing, work, welfare and health; promotion of international education in specific countries.

What's next

With a global pandemic like COVID-19 that is fast to disrupt the landscape, educational institutions can find themselves forced to evolve and deliver high quality teaching and consistent communication to students.

During this time, we want to reassure you that Western Union Business Solutions has a robust business continuity program in place, and we are taking all the appropriate actions to ensure the stability of our operations around the world.

It will be those that strike a balance between digital transformation, flexibility and emotional wellbeing that will be best prepared to weather challenges like the COVID-19 storm, while ensuring they continue to meet the expectations of the new generation of international students.

As Western Union continues to support our clients through challenging times, we continue to monitor the COVID-19 developments very closely. Our primary concern remains the safety of our employees, customers and the well-being of those affected globally. Western Union Business Solutions supports over 60,000 companies worldwide, including over 700 educational institutions, and is a trusted partner in international payments and foreign exchange risk management.