International students play a key role in the UK higher education market. Currently too many international students and their parents encounter extreme difficulties and unnecessary frustrations when paying their tuition and accommodation fees.
Universities that have high proportions of international payers need to better understand what their students’ specific challenges might be, because the payment process that a university puts in place can be either mindful and supportive of these challenges, or create additional barriers. Poor or painful payment experiences cause stress and worry for students and often have a detrimental effect on how efficiently an institution is able to accept international payments
Why Should Universities be Concerned With The Payment Experiences of International Students?
There were 556,625 non-UK students studying at UK universities in 2019/20 (Source: HESA), an increase of 12% on the year before. Therefore international students are an enormously important market for UK universities. WPM is now in its fifth year of researching the payment needs of international students so that universities have the insight they need to better understand and meet the needs of this valuable group of students.
International Student Payer Trends & Insight
WPM’s research is intended to understand the attitudes and behaviours of international students when making their tuition fee payments. We’ve been tracking those behaviours and attitudes since 2017, drawing insight to share with the sector so they can make the payment process easier for international students and payers moving forward.
3 Key Insights From Academic Year 2020/21
1. Shifting Patterns of Behaviour as a Result of the Pandemic
- An increase in international students paying using their home country debit or credit card, meaning that it’s moved to the top method of payment for both new students (increased by 3% to 32%) and returning students (increased by 5% to 31%).
- Fewer international students are opening UK bank accounts. At the end of October/start of November 2020 only 67% had a UK bank account compared to 89% at the same time the previous year. Undoubtedly caused by pandemic restrictions, but this shift was most evident amongst Chinese students.
- A fifth of students ended up paying their tuition fees later than usual, which can often affect a student’s payment experience. Our research suggests that those who had a bad experience are significantly more likely to have paid later than usual (27% vs. 19% when there was no problem with their experience).
2. International Students Are Still Confused About Their Payment Options and Want More Transparency
Almost a quarter (23%) of students complained they felt unclear on how to make payment in this year's survey compared to 17% in 2019. This often results in students delaying payment and defaulting to options which are familiar to them, or recommended to them by family and friends, rather than assessing and understanding the pros and cons of the payment options offered to them by the university.
For clarity on making payment, students who said they’d emailed the university increased from 30% to 51% in 2020. This combined with staffing disruption caused by the pandemic meant that some students reported that their emails asking for advice, guidance and support were not responded to, often for weeks on end, or sometimes not at all.
This undoubtedly will have contributed to more students making payment directly to a university's bank account, which saw the biggest increase of all payment methods from 18% to 23%.
3. Security Remains the Most Important Thing for a Student When Making Tuition Fee Payments, but Cost has Grown in Importance
Whilst security is still a key factor for 46% of students when making payments, there has been a significant increase in those rating cost as the most important consideration from 19% to 26%. This is reflective of the financial strain the pandemic has had on many families, and is likely to continue into the 2021/22 academic year.
Increased cost sensitivity was also picked up in follow up focus groups conducted early in 2021. Financial difficulties experienced by some, coupled with general dissatisfaction of their university experience during the pandemic, have awoken something in international students. They feel frustrated, and some even feel angry. The value-for-money debate has taken on a more personal note. International students said they felt ignored and unsupported by their universities and that the only time finance teams made contact with them was to ‘demand’ payment.