4 things U.K. universities should consider to better serve international students

Of the 2.7 million students at U.K. universities in 2022, about 20% (605,130) are international students pursuing degrees, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. That’s an increase of nearly 9% over the last year.

As universities in the U.K. continue to grow in popularity as education destinations for international students, so too do the challenges of meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse and demanding payer population. As part of regular research over the last several years, WPM, a Flywire company, has surveyed and held focus groups with thousands of international students studying in the U.K. to better understand their payment needs and challenges, as well to get a sense of how payment technology trends and developments are taking hold. More than 1,600 international students completed the 2021 survey.

The overall takeaway is that international students have very different payment needs depending on where they’re making payments. But there’s four themes that emerged that can help universities develop more efficient payment processes and meet the unique needs of their students. This helps students spend more time focussed on learning and less time worrying about paying for higher education.

1. Provide several types of payment options

To best serve students, universities need to be able to accommodate several different payment methods, plus be able to shift quickly to accommodate changing payment preferences.

Prior to the pandemic, for example, students coming from China were much more likely to open a U.K. bank account to pay their tuition. Now, they’re much more likely to pay by credit card. In 2019, 88% of Chinese students surveyed had a U.K. bank account, a number that dropped to 66% in our current survey. On the flip side, only 25% used a locally issued Visa or Mastercard to pay their tuition in 2019 – a number that now sits at 46%. Chinese students are also more likely to pay before leaving home – and now have available options to do so.

Indian students, on the other hand, are much more likely than other nationalities to pay directly via a bank transfer – at a rate of 41% compared to 18%. Indian students are also significantly less likely to pay online using a locally issued credit or debit card, 14% compared to 31%. Nigerian students also prefer to pay by bank transfer.

2. Communication and support around payment instructions is crucial

Just because students come from English-speaking countries, doesn’t necessarily mean the university can assume the payment experience translates in the same way. For instance, Canadian students expressed a high level of dissatisfaction with the payment experience, and are more likely to say that they hadn’t received any payment guidance from their university (36% vs. 13%), and that it wasn’t clear (33% vs. 16%).

Overall, while two-thirds of all students surveyed recall their university giving them guidance as to how to pay their fees in the first year, 21% also indicated that they felt that it was unclear as to how payments were to be made.

3. Offering payment plans is important

We introduced a new question into the survey last year asking whether the pandemic had influenced how or when students paid their fees, and this year we asked the same question of students in their second year at university and above. Nearly two-thirds of students said they changed the way they paid – either looking to pay later or earlier – changed how they paid, or were looking for different payment options. Some students and their families indicated that they had been impacted financially and needed the option of instalments to help them manage the cost. Others indicated that they were choosing instalments as a means of taking advantage of potentially more favourable exchange rates later in the academic year.

4. Payment security is very important

When asked what the most important consideration is when making tuition fee payments, half of the students surveyed named security. There’s high concern over scams – particularly for students coming from China and countries in Africa – and university endorsement of the payment methods offered is still hugely important to many students. Students trust the university and want to pay in the way the university recommends. This also underscores the importance of payment processes that are fully integrated into university processes and where possible, university branded. Students are more likely to resort to a direct bank transfer if their perception is that payment processes aren’t safe.

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This research is based on a new study we're launching soon related to the payment experiences of students coming to the UK from China, India, Nigeria and Canada.

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