002 | Jamie Kanki | The big wooing of international students

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Universities have been battling it out to woo international students. Can they survive without them? Schools in the US and UK, but also now China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea... have been racing to attract international students from Asia, Eastern Europe or Africa, and cash in on a $300 billion market. Then Covid-19 came on the scene. I discuss the new normal with Jamie Kanki, who spent years traveling the world recruiting students and now works for Grok and Concourse, two startups in digital student recruitment. "Universities are furiously looking at their financial model right now," she says. "The value of an experience and of a degree are really going to be put under a microscope over the next few years."

Universities set to turn away hundreds of thousands of students, by Robert Bolton, Australian Financial Review

Beyond $300 Billion: The Global Impact of International Students


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Is it worth $25,000 worth of tuition just to take zoom classes, the true value of an experience and of the degree is going to be really put under a microscope over the next few years. Hi, I'm Isabelle Hogan and this is borderline. A podcast for defined global citizens. There has been no more rewarding experience in my life.

And that of being an international student first, an exchange student in high school. Then again, later as an undergrad, So when the pandemic hit and campuses around the world started to close. My first thought was all those kids around the world for whom a once in a lifetime experience was ending early.

And for all the prospective students who may not yet, and perhaps never experienced this, but beyond the personal hardships, the collapse of the international student market could spell disaster for universities. Some worry about their enrollment with plummeting while others are inundated. In new South Wales, the Australian financial review reports that applications for the 2021 school year, nearly doubled.

Local youth who won't be able to take a gap year, traveling and are looking at a terrible job market ahead or up seeing for university education instead, but without international students who bring $300 billion a year to the global economy and often subsidized the education of nationals financials, no longer add up to talk about this.

I've invited Jamie conky to the podcast. Jamie works for two startups in student recruitment, grok and Concourse, who went to college at the same place in the same time, but we didn't really know each other then no, we properly met one night when we were both lonesome travelers in Beijing and chatted around the dinner of picking duck.

I instantly recognized the kindred spirit. Jamie has worked for universities, traveled all over the world, Asia, especially and met thousands of young people looking to realize their dream. Of international education. Let's jump right in with her.

Can you tell me a bit about sort of, what was the situation, you know, pre COVID in terms of the presence and the importance of international students in universities, and I'm assuming, you know, mostly about the U S but feel free to expand beyond. Yeah. Um, so I would say it's been really interesting the past several years.

Um, the US had a, had a really high peak, um, of international students there a few years ago. And since then there's been spent a lot of concern about, is this a bubble? When's it gonna pop what's, you know, what needs to happen? And all the, while this kind of concern around, um, the domestic numbers, there's just fewer young people than there previously have been.

So a lot of universities have been sort of shifting their. Priority not priority. Maybe that's the wrong word, but they have been increasing a lot of priority to international to supplement the impending decrease of, of domestic students. Right. Um, and for a lot of schools in particular, The public institutions, where, who do charge a higher tuition rate for international students just as they do for out-of-state students.

Um, this is particularly, um, of concern for them, right? So they can, they can supplement their lowing. Um, They're decreasing domestic numbers with their international students. So you saw a lot of them start to turn more and more to international students and, and working with educational agents overseas and trying to, to build up, um, markets overseas, where they maybe previously didn't.

Didn't spend much time or money. Um, so we, we saw that already kind of starting to happen. And then at the same time you saw these giant powerhouses, you know, like China in particular, um, in Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong started to really increase their global marketing of international students. And they had not previously been major players, um, and international student recruitment fields.

So, um, suddenly. Students, you know, in Africa or students in Eastern European countries are starting to be recruited by Asian universities. So the global competition overall was increasing as well. So it was really starting to get pretty hairy out there to be honest. Um, and the, you know, everyone wants, everyone kind of wants a piece of the pie, so to speak.

So. So, yeah, that's sort of, what's been building up until up until this craziness. That's, that's interesting. I, I, I certainly was not wooed, uh, when I was an international student, you know, 15 years ago, but it sounds like there's a lot of wounds. Well, you missed out story of my life when the, you know, the mess capital M starting happening.

Yeah. How did that impact, um, that, that drive to recruit and, and the students who were currently or were then, uh, in universities? I was based in Malaysia at that time. Um, and then. Malaysia, obviously we were getting daily updates in January about the situation unfolding in China. Um, and just because of the nature of my work, you know, there was a lot of concern about, you know, China's a huge, it is the biggest market for international students globally.

Um, and so. We, we were, you know, there, we were trying to spread the word among universities that, you know, this could really impact you. Um, but I think in January, in particular, the feeling was sort of like, Oh, it's just sort of a funny little outbreak. It'll go away. Maybe we don't send our recruiters out to China the spring.

Maybe we have to adjust some of our events to be later in the spring. Um, Really, there was no real sense of urgency outside of, of Asia to be honest, um, about what to do or that this was going to be a longstanding issue. And then as February and March started to roll out and we saw this thing spread, um, into Western countries, unfortunately, um, then they started to clearly pay attention, right?

So by the time this started to really ramp up in February, March, a lot of students had already secured. Or they had offers or they thought they had had admission offers to their university. So I'm talking about specifically grade 12, you know, the students in their final years of high school. Um, a lot of them had plans, but then of course there's concern around like, can I get there?

Are they going to even have classes on, you know, in person? Um, if they go online, is this going to be worth it? So for the, for the students in their final year, um, This has been really stressful because they thought they had their plans sort of set. Um, they ha you know, they had a lot of them, the way it works is a lot of them will get conditional offers that, that hinge on final leaving exams, many of which have been canceled.

Um, and that's, that's a huge thing for a student. You know, if a students. Admission to a great institution hinges on their final IB scores. Um, and then IB goes in canceled. Then what, what does that mean for their admission? And so there's questions being sent and the students are frantic and the counselors who are trying to help them are frantic about what does this mean for my student?

What does this mean for my child? Um, and the universities don't have any answers because they're also sort of reeling from this decision. So it's. Kind of very messy and it's. It's stress stressful for any, any child in any parents, you know, even within a domestic setting, but then you had, you know, the, the immigration issues, like it can take months to get a visa.

You can't really wait for universities to decide what they're going to do in July. That's right. Yeah. There's and, and if, you know, if you not to go to US-centric, but I mean, the U S in particular is. Is struggling because the emphases of the consular offices around the world, most of them don't have any openings for, they're not taking visa appointments right now.

Um, and it's, it's been concerning for students and their families who are trying to see, okay, when is the earliest appointment I can get when they go to the website and the earliest date they see as November. Um, you know, so, so. There's just been a lot of questions on both sides and universities trying to communicate to students that we hear your questions.

We don't have the answers, but we hear you and we're doing our best, but you know, that's, that's not enough to a student and their family are getting ready to. Spend a lot of money and go abroad. So what is the risk to universities? If you know, if we're seeing more deferrals, if, if you know the next semester or wherever, whether that's fall or, or January for the Southern hemisphere, um, ends up just getting, uh, less enrollment.

The risk here. And we, you know, we sort of touched on this speaking specifically about us public institutions who rely so heavily on their international, um, students and, and the tuition revenue that they bring in. If you're going to see if you're going to see a massive drop in your international enrollment, that's going to have huge ramifications.

And we're not just talking about like your administration and your coaches needing to take, uh, you know, like salary caps and things like that. This is, this goes far, far beyond that those international students supplement scholarships for domestic students. They supplement tuition discounts for, for local students.

Um, That, that money supplements, a lot of things that benefit everyone on the university, not, it's not like it just goes into the president's pockets or anything. So, um, it could also affect their domestic numbers and the amount of aid that the institution is able to provide to local students. Could we see universities, um, even shut down over there?

Absolutely. I think, I think w you know, You were watching the situation in the us prior to coronavirus. We're already a lot of institutions sort of just hanging by a thread, um, just barely meeting their enrollment targets to stay afloat. Um, and the fact that you're, I don't know if you've seen this artist is.

Being talked about internationally, but there are a lot of us institutions who are putting, putting their staff and faculty on furloughs and sometimes even letting letting them go or, or merging departments. Um, you're seeing that happen as well. I haven't heard of that really happening outside of the us.

Um, So I'm not entirely sure what, you know, what the UK is doing or things like that to sort of tighten up. But you know, this, this last since January, until now with, with universities globally closing, you've got a lot of students who are demanding, right. Possibly rightfully so refunds on their housing deposits and or on their housing that they have put, put up forward for the dormitory costs.

And, um, if they, if they do meal plans, they want refunds on those things, which is understandable. And then sometimes they're also asking for refunds or discounts on tuition since everything is going online. And, you know, universities are trying to meet those demands, but you understand that that's also like millions of dollars.

Out, um, on their pockets as well. So, so I think the likelihood of institutions shutting down is pretty, pretty real. It's it's more it's type of institution. Right? I don't think we're going to see any of the big, huge powerhouses, um, um, closed down or anything like that. They will have to adjust their strategies, but the smaller schools, I think might, might struggle.

The school's like the kind of like third tier schools, like, no, one's going to shut down Harvard. Right? Right. It's I think if anything, you could have. If, if a student has to go online for Harvard or for one of the big, big name schools, that the value of the degree doesn't necessarily decrease when they finish, whether they had to do a year online because of COVID or not, the value doesn't necessarily go down the problem.

I think for a lot of smaller institutions that are possibly fantastic institutions, but they really sell students on the experience that they provide on campus. If you're going online, suddenly that experience doesn't mean much. Um, and so, you know, the students are really going to be relying on, on the face value of the degree.

So that could be, that could be something that really hurts them. Yeah. I mean, speaking as a, as a former international students, I know that like, I mean, it's going to sound super superficial, but. Uh, you know, as a, as a teenager, you know, you're looking at American universities on television and you're seeing that, that residential campus, which is really, is not a thing that exists in a lot of European countries, for instance.

And it it's a huge part of the appeal, right? Uh, it's an experience, right? That's that is exactly. That is exactly the thing. So, you know, it's not to say that those institutions don't offer fantastic. Degrees and fantastic education. But if, if sort of what they were selling was the campus experience, the on-campus experience.

They're going to have a harder time. Yeah, right. You're gonna ha you're going to have to wonder if you want to spend $25,000 a year on, on zoom class. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. So you mentioned that, uh, you know, there was this global competition for student enrollment and that Asian universities had really come on the scene in the past few years.

Um, given that, you know, the pandemic was much better handled on their end. Uh, in their countries, uh, are they going to be better set up to kind of win that, that war for war in quotes or for students for admissions? I think very possibly a lot of what we're hearing, um, from counselors and students, um, particularly in, in Asian countries is that they there's a desire for the students to stay a bit closer to home.

Um, whereas previously maybe they had been, you know, really dead set on going to Canada, the UK or the U S there's, there's an understandable, uh, desire to want to be a little bit closer to home. Um, And also, I think you're going to see that from the parents too. So for some of the markets where the parents and families are more influential in the student's college decision, um, there's probably going to be some pressure to stick a little closer to home.

We saw, I mean, just the way, the way that current students were, were treated, um, You know, many of them being sort of sent home or sent off campus with really nowhere to go once the school is closed. I think that that that's gonna resonate. Um, that's gonna, that's gonna be remembered. Um, and that's not to say that some universities didn't handle it really well.

There's a lot, there's some amazing schools that did an unbelievable job of support. You know, like I, I read about King's university college in London, Ontario, this little school, um, And they, they didn't kick their, their international students off. They built out meal delivery plans immediately to support them.

They've got student services checking on them daily to make sure the kids are okay. And they're, you know, feeling, feeling mentally okay. Through this whole thing. So, you know, some handled it better than others. And I think that that's gonna, you know, parents talk and. And especially in Asia, um, it gets around about how, how institutions handled it.

So I imagine that, you know, the Chinese universities are, are gonna do pretty well. The Taiwanese universities will do well. Yeah. I think, I think that could be. Very possible because our, most of the students, uh, Asian as well, that are looking for those schools, correct. Yeah. They're gonna, yeah, definitely.

You're seeing a lot of students and, you know, and even in Africa that are like, well, maybe I'll go to China instead of, you know, going to the U S or to the UK. So, and we've seen some ugly. Uh, racism as well, you know, against Asians, against Asians early on now, you know, with, with African-Americans. Yeah, that certainly makes it less appealing.

Definitely. Uh, every time, every time something happens that gets, that gets. Put on, on the global news front. I think that that just makes it louder. And this time in particular, as you mentioned, I mean, to this, the anti-Asian sentiment, um, there for awhile, obviously that's sort of been clouded over now with what's happening in the U S um, with, with the, with the black lives matter movements and things like that.

So, I don't, I don't think it's playing well for, for families who are thinking about sending their students away during a pandemic to inexpensive place. That's now, you know, got a lot of term political and racial turmoil that's happening within the country. It's not a super inviting place to be. Right?

Yeah. Understandably and I had a bad also, um, you know, tell me to what extent that's true, but that. You know, national politics, whether that's Trump in the U S or Brexit in the UK had also made already, uh, already had an impact on. On enrollment numbers or application numbers. Yeah, absolutely. In the U S in particular where most of our, most of our international students are coming for STEM subjects.

Um, I'm most of our students are coming from Asia for those STEM subjects. When, when the politics. Starts to take a turn to where we're not going to allow those students to apply for jobs or to get that work experience in the country. And that's always been something that's been so highly sought after and valued as part of our education system here suddenly.

What is it? That's back to the question of value. Like, is it worth it? Like if I can't, if I can't potentially get a job in the U S. A few years as part of my study package, is it worth it? Is it worth the risks? Is it worth the money? Um, yeah, so, so the politics definitely are going to play into this. So trying to look and I realized there's tons.

We don't know, but looking ahead to the future, to the next, you know, not the immediate crisis, but the next five, 10 years, whatever. How do you see this impacting? Uh, international education. Is it going to like speed up things that were already happening? Are we going to go back to, you know, the old norm? I hope not.

Um, I hope it won't go back to the old normal, I, I think, um, you know, cause students are, are evolving and the, and the system is evolving and what we know about. Predictors of student success is evolving. And so you're seeing this in particular, this shift in the United States. And I think that other countries, hoo, hoo, hoo, near some of what we do.

Well, we'll be following suit, but you're seeing, um, The impact of, of coronavirus in particular has had, it's been massive on the standardized testing industry, right? So students being able to take the SATs or take their, you know, take their, even just their leaving exams like IB and AP and things like that has been greatly affected.

Even the guy off the gal cow in China is getting pushed back at least a month. Um, which means. You know, institutions that typically made admission decisions based on those things are not, they're not getting those. So they're going to have at least a year's worth of data to see, okay, we let students in without these tests, how are they doing?

How's it going? Do we need these tests? And suddenly there's these, there's all these questions. Um, I shouldn't say suddenly because there's actually been a longstanding movement, um, in the U S to do a way with standardized testing, um, For, for various access and equity reasons. Um, but you're, you're seeing a lot of institutions now move to go test optional or, you know, the UC system, the California system, um, basically saying they're not going to be requiring SATs or actsh for the following two years, which is huge.

That's huge. We're focused. We're very focused right now on the students who are graduating right now. Right. We're very focused on your 12th, but actually it's the year. The students underneath them, the year 11 students are the ones who still have one more year that have, I think they have a lot of questions ahead of them because they don't know when they'll be able to take those exams and they don't know what's going to happen on campus.

Um, Of the campuses of all these institutions. So they actually have even more questions ahead of them. How is this, how are these online classes that they had to do for a semester or a full year? How are those going to be interpreted by universities around the world when it's time for them to start applying?

Um, so there's so, so many unanswered questions and I'm sure it's causing a lot of anxiety for the students, I guess. One thing that's good is that nobody knows. So it's not like somebody holding all the answers and, and, and keeping it a secret. Like we're literally all kind of swimming through this merch together.

Institutions are going to have to adjust. They're going to have to think more clearly about what they're looking for in students and what, what makes a good student to them. And they're gonna have to articulate that a little bit. Better than just this mad grab for applications. Um, it's going to have to be a little bit more thoughtful and I think they'll have to think about what learning, what successful learning on their own canvases looks like.

Is it, um, Is online an option. Are you suddenly going to be able to accommodate 50,000 more students than you previously thought? Is your capacity going to go up? Because online works out really well for your students. Maybe that could open doors for some institutions. I don't know. Um, but I think they're gonna, they're all, they're all furiously looking at their financial models right now to see, right.

Like, do we discount online tuition or what does that mean? Um, for us. Ultimately, what do you think will kind of, will there be a sustained appeal to. You know, traveling halfway across the world for a physical experience of education. I think there will always be. I think there will always be value in traveling abroad and to studying abroad with, with students who are different than you and getting a different point of view.

I don't think that the value will go down. I think. If anything, this could, this could make Western education and, and, um, in particular, just because it has been known to be so expensive, it could make it significantly more accessible to the students who previously never dreamed of going abroad because it was just too expensive.

Maybe now they can, they can afford the online option. Um, but I think, I think the question, the questions around. The true value of an experience and of the degree is going to be really put under a microscope over the next few years, because it, you know, is it worth $25,000 worth of tuition just to take zoom classes, as you said, um, you know, or what is the actual value of the degree is going to be, there's going to be looked at more clearly.

I think my Alma mater the university of Missouri school of journalism has a study abroad and internship program in London. And every year I meet students. Sometimes a student stands out this year. I met Isabelle roadblocks, a young woman who really impressed me with her dedication and maturity. She was kind enough to leave me a voicemail about her own experience of being forced to go home.

As an international student, let's listen to what she has to say. And then I put her story to Jamie as well. It was about beginning of March when we started to hear word and had an understanding about the increase of coronavirus cases. Um, And problems in Europe. So it wasn't until other programs from our university were being sent home.

That I think for myself personally, I was starting to even think about the fact that we could be sent home. And the Dean of the journalism school reached out to us wanting to talk after they sent home the first program, asking how we'd felt, how our work environments, where, um, the closures are in London and.

Just how generally we felt safe or not. And then it ended up the very next day we received the announcement from Trump that he was going to be closing the borders, um, for any travelers from Europe. Um, I think of course we knew that didn't apply to citizens, but that was the moment that we all knew we would be going home and very soon and sure enough, the next day we were told we had about five days to get back.

I remember getting the push notification from the Trump administration. Now that I think about it, it might even have been 1:00 AM or something crazy like that. And just immediately reading it, calling my mom and bursting into tears, knowing saying, this is it. We have to go home. Um, I think just in that moment, it was realizing, you know, the student loans that I'd taken out the savings my parents had put away.

Um, all of those things I had set aside for money for, um, just all the expectations, um, were being brought to a halt and all the things I wanted to do ending. Um, of course, when we got home, however, within just a few days and everything was beginning to lock down more concretely in us, I was definitely happy to be home and to be safe and was able to cope with it quite quickly.

Yeah, that that's, it that's sounds insane. That was something we didn't really talk much about, but like students literally being sent home in particular international students being sent home. Um, and not knowing whether or not they'll be able to come back to finish their degree or what that's gonna, that's crazy.

Um, that's gotta be, yeah, it's heartbreaking. Really. So you're right. That's exactly the right word. Especially as someone who's had these experiences and who knows what life-changing they are and, and how much they really shape who you become as an adult. If you have to put a silver lining on it, this is something that, you know, the class of 2020 and the class of 2021 will have in common globally.

I sort of. I sort of wonder if like five or seven years down the line, if they're not backpacking through, you know, through Southeast Asia and they meet up with someone and they can talk about what, what the lockdown was like for them over a beer. I don't know. It might be the, it might be the thing that ties this, this group of youths all together.

And you know, it certainly is going to be a generation that, that knows something about resilience. I think. Definitely. Definitely. Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much for doing this

class of 2020. Congratulations. We know it was a tough one class of 2021. Good luck. We're with you to school workout. If you're a planner and a plotter, like I was as a teenager, this is certainly a wrench in the plans. If it's any constellation. And I know it's not the same, but I got rejected from my dream school and plan B turned out to be amazing.

Sometimes a little pivoting works out. If you know of any programs that are open for the year ahead, anything that's available to people who wanted to study abroad in his plans got forwarded. Please let me know and I'll make sure to pass it along and share it. I want to thank Jamie conky for being Guinea pig.

Number two on this podcast, I want to thank Isabel  for sharing her story. There's a couch for you in London. As soon as the world comes back to normal. Thank you for listening, please. Again, share rate, review this podcast on the Apple store and everywhere else. It makes a huge difference. I'll talk to you next week.

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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.