The coronavirus may lead to a drop in student numbers for the 2020-2021

The truth is that no one can say precisely how will COVID-19 affect future student demand.

However, based on the data we have so far, we can make educated guesses about the implication the pandemic might have on universities and student numbers.

A London Economics report conducted for the University and College Union (UCU) suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated a looming economic recession that will lead to a drop in student numbers for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Looking closely at the numbers, the pandemic has forced many first-year applicants to reconsider their plans for the year. Statistically, domestic first-year students are expected to be 111,000 less than last year, and international students to be 121,000. This is approximately a 16% decline in domestic and 47% in international first-year applications leading to a £2.5bn funding black hole, the report warns.

What is more, the report raises a concerned finger and suggests that without government intervention around 30,000 university jobs will be threatened, and even more jobs will be at risk throughout other sectors. Moreover, if the reduced economic activity of universities continues, the financial losses in the UK can amount to more than £6bn.

Are international students coming to the UK to study next year?

Naturally, some universities are prepared for doomsday scenarios better than others, but a growing worry is that those universities that rely too much on government grants and increasing international student numbers will be hit the hardest.

Another research by the British Council (2020) confirms the danger of universities relying too much on steady growth in overseas students coming to the UK to study. The report ranks China as the largest source of international students in the country. In 2019, 115,014 study visas were issued to Chinese students (45% were international visas). And while from 2006 to 2019 the numbers of students coming from all countries have been stable, the number of Chinese students has risen from 25,000 to 90,000. According to the Global Head of Insights and Consultancy at the British Council, 13% of the Chinese students who participated in the research are unlikely to return to school and 28% remain undecided about coming back, which has raised a few concerned eyebrows as this number can determine the outcome of the crisis for universities.

If such projections come true, there will be significant financial consequences. The loss in income from non-EU students is expected to be £1.51bn and a nearly £612m loss from UK students, with a further £350m from the fall in EU students. Furthermore, in such a scenario, 91 institutions will undergo a harsh fall in income and will be in a critical positionable to cover only expenditures.

The London Economics study writes every university’s and operator’s income stream may be severely jeopardized as it is still unclear when–and under what form–studies will resume. Optimistically, even if face-to-face or widespread online sessions are possible in September 2020, 14% of domestic students are expected to defer their decision to undertake a higher education qualification whilst the number for international student deferrals goes up to 47%.

Things are not much different in other places on the island. In Wales, universities could face £98m less in income in 2020-21 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Also, the report for the University and College Union estimates an eventual drop in first-year student numbers with more than 13,000 for the upcoming academic year.