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ACA Think Pieces: The world after COVID-19


Where might international student mobility be two years or so from now? This brief review seeks to explore beyond the immediate at what a post-COVID world will look like (there will be one!). The COVID shock has been immediate and profound, reaching into all aspects of our life, far beyond health, welfare and financial concerns. As for people, whilst there are generalised effects, the impact on organisations has reflected their individual characteristics. For example universities everywhere moved fast, launching many innovative approaches to support both learning and welfare needs of students. For example a major initiative has been the migration of materials for online delivery, allowing students to complete current programmes and, if problems persist, for next semester students.

Creative responses will remain essential, given that many countries remain in crisis as the global health emergency is morphing into an economic one. What is agreed is that recession is inevitable, unemployment will increase, and international trade and mobility of people 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: attenuated V, flattish U, slanting L or a wonky W, but no consensus exists. Even a sharp V-shaped bounce-back will result in lower international student enrolments beyond 2021. 

However, it is important to be reminded that the underlying motivations that drove international mobility to six 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. Employability is now likely to be the overwhelming concern, given the looming recession. At previous times of high unemployment it is worth noting that investment in higher education remained strong – acquiring new qualifications being seen as providing competitive advantage in a tough labour market.

The last twenty-five years have been boom-time for mobility. During this period there have been two major economic crises – in Asia in 1997 and globally in 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 goes beyond anything previously experienced, reaching into areas potentially not yet foreseen and beyond the financial. And it happened in the context of a global economic downturn that was forecast even before COVID struck.

It must be anticipated that barriers to mobility, some old and some new, will likely grow. Recession implies reduced means to fund international study, growing political tensions and nationalism could result in stricter immigration controls in destination countries, unemployment could close post-study work, reluctance to travel is likely and concerns over personal health and security will be high priority.

But there remains the strong desire across universities to attract international students and for many long-existing reasons: contribution to academic standards and research output; community enrichment; and revenue. In terms of income some universities could have a shortfall of over €60 million this coming year. For UK universities, Brexit, with the possible loss of 50,000 EU students and research funding, will exacerbate the challenging financial and academic problems.

Universities will need to respond positively and assertively to the changing 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 successfully managed COVID could prove 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 the 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, followed by some growth, but from a lower base. There will be pent-up demand to satisfy, for example from China and India and, given the demographic bulge in the latter, this could result in new flows. Then, at some stage, increases from growing economies in Africa might perhaps offset 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. This, in turn, could result in many more scholarships and fee reductions.

The immediate response, the move online for teaching and operation of universities, has to be welcomed but is likely time-limited. Evidence from pre-COVID times indicates that the demand for degree programmes is much greater for on-campus study than for online delivery. Aspects of the new online capabilities should prove beneficial, with more individual modules within a degree being made available online, offering students greater choice, study flexibility and possibly lower fees. Enhanced online delivery might accelerate ‘internationalisation at home’, for example through COIL initiatives that facilitate new partnerships and engage communities of students not normally able to afford mobility experiences. 

While 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.

Neil Kemp

Neil Kemp, OBE is an international higher education consultant and Board Member of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. Earlier, he was Director Education UK at the British Council and the organisation’s Director in a number of Asian countries.

The World after COVID-19 is a series of ‘think pieces’ which ACA is publishing every Tuesday since early May. The pieces are authored by well-known experts in the field of international higher education. The basic question posed to them all is if and how the post-COVID-19 world will differ from the one we have until recently been used to.