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International students and the impact of COVID-19

Where might international student mobility be two years or so from now? This brief review focuses specifically on international students and seeks to explore beyond the immediate towards what a post-COVID world might look like (there will be one!)

Dr Neil Kemp OBE*


The COVID shock has been immediate and profound, reaching into all aspects of our life, far beyond health, welfare and financial concerns. Similar to that for people, whilst there are generalised effects, the impact on organisations has reflected their individual characteristics. For example, universities everywhere have moved fast, launching many innovative approaches to support both learning and welfare needs of their students. One major initiative has seen the migration of materials for online delivery, allowing students to complete current programmes and, if problems persist, for next semester students to commence.

Creative responses will remain essential, given that many countries remain in crisis as the global health emergency, morphs into an economic one. What is generally agreed is that recession is inevitable, unemployment will increase, and international trade and mobility of peoples will be greatly reduced. By how much and for how long will be determined not just by economics but also by sentiment, the alternatives available and the likelihood of the occasional irrational decision. Various recovery scenarios are put forward for national economies - attenuated V, flattish U, slanting L or a wonky W, but as yet no consensus exists. Even a sharp V-shaped bounce-back will result in lower international student enrolments well beyond 2021. 

However, it is important to be reminded that the underlying motivations that drove annual international mobility to 6 million students globally remains. Top demand considerations are known to be enhancing employability, building communication and language skills, experiencing new cultures, and being part of a learning community, in close connection with fellow students, academics and employers. The future employability aspect is now likely to be the overwhelming concern, given the looming recession. However, at previous times of high unemployment it is worth noting that private investment and individual demand for higher education remained strong – acquiring new qualifications was always perceived as providing competitive advantage in a tough labour market.

The last twenty-five years have been boom-time for mobility, indeed for the last fifty years the number of international degree-seeking students has increased at a possible rate of approximately 4% per annum, with the odd blip, before returning to strong growth. During the last 25 years there have been two major economic crises – in Asia in 1997 and the global recession of 2008. For example in Indonesia in 1997 the US dollar exchange rate fell to 20% of its pre-crisis level. While international enrolments did drop initially, recovery happened and was back on track within three years. However, the current crisis is so much deeper than anything previously experienced, reaching well beyond the financial and into areas potentially not yet foreseen; it is also in the context of a global economic downturn that was forecast even before COVID struck. Can we therefore ever anticipate a return to the previous growth rates?

Barriers to student mobility, some old and some new, will likely grow. Recession implies reduced personal and public funds for international study; growing political tensions and nationalism could result in stricter immigration controls in destination countries; unemployment concerns might close post-study work opportunities, reluctance to travel is likely and concerns over personal health and security will be high priority (for the students and their families).

But demand remains strong across universities to attract international students and for many long-existing reasons as they contribution to academic standards and research output; enrich the campus and local communities; facilitate international partnerships; and generate revenue. For example, some universities could have a shortfall of over US$60 million this coming year as a result of decline in enrolments. In the UK universities, Brexit, with the possible loss of 50,000 EU students and access to European research funding, will exacerbate the challenging COVID related financial and academic problems.

Faced with these challenges, universities will need to respond positively and assertively to the new circumstances While the under 30s might be risk takers, their parents, who likely finance studies, are much less so and will need reassurance. A university, able to demonstrate how it has successfully managed COVID, could prove more attractive to a concerned parent. At the national level a new differentiator might emerge, with those main destination countries perceived as higher COVID risk (for example currently the US, France and UK) losing to those of lower risk (New Zealand, Australia and Germany).

Taking considerations together it is highly likely that there will be very significant declines in international enrolments over the next two years or so; decline will be greatest this Autumn but there is potential for some growth in 2021, but from a lower base. This observation is borne out by recent surveys covering intending international students in South and East Asia; these indicate that many students are considering delaying decisions to travel, certainly into 2021. This would likely result in pent-up demand that could drive some growth in 2021 and 2022 - for example, from China and India, and given the demographic bulge in the latter, this might result in new enrolment growth. At some stage over the next few years, increases from some growing economies in Africa will occur, perhaps offsetting declining demand from carbon dependent Middle Eastern countries.

In spite of some positives, the pool of students seeking international study for the next few years is likely to be smaller and will result in greater competition between universities to attract new students. This, in turn, could result in universities offering many more scholarships and fee reductions.

As mentioned, the immediate response to COVID has seen the move online for teaching and operation of universities, while this must be welcomed, it is likely to be time limited. Much evidence from pre-COVID times, indicates that the demand for degree programmes is very much greater for on-campus delivery study than for online delivery of degree programmes. However, universities have already learnt much from their new experiences with online development over the last three months or so and many aspects of their new capabilities will be beneficial and likely to influence programme development in the future. For example, to make more individual modules within a degree programme available online; to offer students greater choice, study flexibility and possibly lower fees; and to provide new ‘micro-credentials’ – and delivered globally. Importantly, enhanced online delivery might accelerate ‘internationalisation at home’, for example through Collaborative International Learning (COIL) initiatives that facilitate new teaching partnerships and engage communities of students not normally able to afford mobility experiences. 

While higher education colleagues, wherever they might be, work hard to manage through the current crisis, it is important to recall that international education has optimism at its core: it provides diverse opportunities for young people; excites them with new experiences; promotes understanding; encourages the sharing of ideas and ideals; enhances cultural awareness; and creates global citizens. Values now even more important for all our futures.


*The author is an international higher education consultant and Board Member of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. He was Director Education UK at the British Council as well as the organisation’s Director in a number of Asian countries. Other posts held include Research Fellow at University College, London, and Board Member at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Sussex, and the UK Open University Worldwide.

Contact: [email protected]

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