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Coronavirus: a threat to the internationalisation of higher education?

First in China, later in other parts of Asia and now increasingly everywhere in the world, the Coronavirus is affecting public life. It also impacts on higher education in general and on internationalisation in particular.

Chinese higher education, especially in Wuhan and the Hubei province, is functioning in slow motion. Whole campuses have been shut down, labs are often not accessible, in-class teaching is rare. This applies also to branch campuses of European or American universities. Attempts to compensate for lack of face-to-face instruction have seemingly given a boost to online education. Given the fears about the virus, China’s self-set target to attract 500,000 foreign students to the country might not be reachable so soon. It is expected that student flows in the near future might be partly diverted away from China to other (Asian) destination countries.

Countries such as Australia and New Zealand, with a high inflow of Chinese students, are worried. Australia has 153,000 Chinese students enrolled at its universities. About 100,000 of those are now stuck in China. During most of February, a ban to enter Australia for anyone arriving from China has been in place. With the academic year starting at the end of February, the fear is that very many of the 153,000 students will not arrive in time and might decide not to study in Australia at all. Given the high tuition fees at Australian universities, this would lead to financial losses for the universities, and the economy as a whole. Chinese students contributed some 8 million USD to the Australian economy in 2019. Some institutions have offered their Chinese students 1,500 USD for entering Australia from a third country, and thus to avoid the immigration ban.

Student exchanges between Chinese and foreign universities are already suffering. Scientific collaboration is being hampered by the virus. Meetings of multi-national research teams including Chinese researchers are being postponed or cancelled, many scientific conferences will not go ahead. The likelihood is that this trend will not remain restricted to China and Asia, but will reach Europe and the US soon, too.