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“Five year recovery period” predicted for global student mobility

The mobility of international students could take up to five years to recover from the coronavirus pandemic across the world, as universities continue to grapple with the “extraordinary set of challenges” the crisis has created.

The coronavirus pandemic could interrupt the international student sector for up to five years. Photo: University of the Fraser Valley

Combined with the "financial hardships that will inevitably follow" the virus, pressures associated with climate change may also lead to reduced international tertiary mobility, Smith noted

This is the view of Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, speaking at the first virtual iteration of UUKi’s annual conference.

As the world faces an economic recession – losing up to 10% of GDP worldwide – the middle classes which have sustained the growth of international education will temporarily shrink, he suggested.

“As a sector we are looking over the edge into a very significant financial abyss”

“The overall position for international education is… going to take a massive hit,” stated Marginson. “I think we are looking at at least a five-year recovery period in terms of the numbers of people that move between countries for education.”

While health factors associated with the Covid-19 pandemic will impact the sector in the next 12 months, the following economic recession will create a “very long recovery period”.

“As a sector we are looking over the edge into a very significant financial abyss,” University of Exeter vice-chancellor Steve Smith agreed.

“With most institutions being able to cope with reduced finances – albeit at the cost of investment in major student and staff facilities – but most worryingly to be honest, we are totally uncertain where the bottom of this is going to be,” he said.

Smith said reliable predictions of international recruitment for next year are “impossible”.

Commentators agreed that enrolment for the next academic year will look different, with universities grappling with how to deliver programs virtually and market them internationally.


Emerging markets – South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and sub-saharan Africa – where many educators source students, will be most impacted by the pandemic both health and economically, Marginson stated.

“In many respects in the English speaking countries, this has been a supply driven industry… We are now seeing a flip around in that to see what has become a buyer’s market where we will be hunting for scarce international students,” he suggested.

“The competitive effects will be greater than before,” he added. Additionally, health facilities and reputation in education destination countries “coming out of the pandemic will become very important”.

Marginson also indicated that East Asia countries recovering faster than their counterparts will lead to shifts in student mobility.

“There will be more students coming out of east Asia earlier than they will out of other regions of the world. East Asian countries – China, Korea, Japan – will become larger providers of regional education than they have been,” he explained.

“The competitive effects will be greater than before”

“The capacity of families to buy into international education on the scale that they have is now gone. We need to think about ways in which we can provide a better experience than we have provided before, including better health security,” Marginson concluded.

Combined with the “financial hardships that will inevitably follow” the virus, pressures associated with climate change may also lead to reduced international tertiary mobility, Smith noted.

Rapid innovation in online teaching could add to the way the crisis will “change universities and how they operate, teach and research forever”, Smith told delegates at Universities UK International‘s online IHEF conference.

“As professionals [we] will all be so used to working remotely and via online platforms that in some cases we will never go back to old habits,” Smith suggested.

The “impressive” shift to online delivery has created a question of quality, Marginson added. Online provision systems need to be ramped up in the northern hemisphere to prepare for an academic year that will be predominantly or wholly online that is “likely to persist into 2021,” he said.

However, online provision will not replace face-to-face education in the long term, Marginson predicted. Students will continue to seek immersive experiences in other countries, and perceived “status benefits” attached to face-to-face education will continue.

Asked if universities should price differently for online programs, he said, “If online is going to become a longer-term substitute for face-to-face learning, as it will in some cases, it needs to be seen as a substantially different product.. and it will need a separate pricing structure. The idea that we charge exactly the same price for any kind of online [product] as we charge for face-to-face has to go.”

UK universities have been “struggling to repatriate students”, Smith noted, with some stranded due to closed borders and suspended international flights.

Whatever the outcome of the crisis, “the UK has to move decisively towards increasing the percentage of international students studying at all levels in the educational system,” Smith concluded.

“Education and research are becoming worldwide more and more international every year,” he said, affirming that the UK should continue to invest in its research output and that it would continue to be world-leading in this respect.

“The education research systems that prosper in the world will be those that are international in focus, producing research that combines the talents and insights of the leading researchers in more than one knowledge economy and supporting and educating students in an increasingly, maybe totally digital way.”

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4 Responses to “Five year recovery period” predicted for global student mobility

  1. Margison: « The idea that we charge exactly the same price for any kind of online [product] as we charge for face-to-face has to go. »
    Question/comment:
    Should online education then be priced higher or lower? In the past, online Ed solutions were, mostly, condidered as the cheaper alternative to traditional Ed. by students and vastly used by those students lacking in financial incapacity to afford face-to-face in the northern hemisphere. Although those who used online for lack of Mobility due to other reasons than finances (professional and personal reasons) would have paid premium prices.
    On the other hand, Online programs on the upper price spectrum, usually added back that component of the periodic face to fact as in an effort to combine the traditional to the virtual in order to justify higher pricing but still bellow the traditional classroom price. e.i., as a one weekend per month on campus classes added to an online program .

    I will appreciate any one‘ s prediction on how or which ways the pricing will go and the factors that will influence those new directions.

  2. There are reasons to be more optimistic. The demand for international education is undiminished. As Janet Ilieva and I set out in @UniWorldNews this week we’ve seen international mobility rebound and continue to grow after other political, economic, social incidents in the past. Also, QS which has been monitoring prospective international student views since early in this health crisis, this week reported that while many students believe the pandemic will impact their study plans this year most still intend to study abroad at some point.

    • The difference this time is that Coronavirus needs to be expunged and those of us who still work in Universities’ strategic planning offices are looking ahead to green shoots in September 2021. What are all of the Pro-VCs, International Office Staff and Agents going to do between now and then at taxpayers’ expense?

  3. Internationalization of Higher Education and student mobility overseas during 2020 – impact on replacing qualified retired people in the job market.

    I am looking at the “Internationalization of Higher Education” sector on a global basis to assess the repercussions. For starters it looks like the year 2020 could be a watershed year for international student mobility. This will certainly show a major blip in the numbers of new potential students seeking admission to overseas Universities. For example, in the year 2018-2019, USA which is the biggest market for international students had earned an amount of US$ 42 billion from them. The majority of international students who came were from China and India. But today, it is reported that the US Embassy in these two countries and other countries as well have stopped visa appointments and interviews. Same holds true for many European Universities. It is a well known fact that International students start preparing at least 8 months in advance for admission to the fall session of the semester in the USA universities. This time, even there could be delays in their home countries to finish their respective degree requirements due to Covid 19. In view of this knockdown effect, this will not fructify as “admission acceptance” may not happen currently in April and May months. Alternatively in light of COVID-19, what colleges and universities around the world are busy doing is to take various actions in order to secure the well-being of their existing students and staff, as well as members of their communities. Most universities have already contacted their domestic and international students – especially those students from the countries most affected by the virus to ensure their well-being. Most of the classes have been converted to online courses. Some well off universities also looking at some type of financial assistance to some students who may not have access to funds due to the virus closedown as well as counselling and health services. Today over 200 colleges and universities in the United States have suspended classes or have moved them all online as a prevention to the spread of COVID-19. Some institutions are establishing the infrastructure needed to prevent their students from group gatherings. They are also preparing business continuity plans for their administrative and academic staff so that they can work remotely. As things stand now, students planning to attend overseas Universities for higher education need to postpone their plans by at least 6 months which means try for admission in summer of 2021. This year will effectively go away if admission decisions by the Universities for new admits are not closed by May 2020. Students mobility for higher education in well known overseas universities could reduce as much as 70 percent. it may be remembered that as an example in the USA alone about the number of Americans retiring daily has nearly doubled since the year 2000. Currently, roughly 10,000 people turn 65 each day, the standard age for retirement, according to a Deutsche Bank note published Tuesday. And according to Census forecasts, that number is set to rise. It will reach nearly 12,000 people within the next 10 years. By 2030, according to the Census Bureau, all baby boomers will be older than 65. Where will one get people to replace them. International STEM graduates, with good English who have done their Masters in a known US University campus recently stand a good chance for gainful employment and to help the USA economy grow. But for now, for new international student build up even to the level of 2018-2019, it will take atleast 24 months from 2021. Just a thought. Ramesh Kumar Nanjundaiya, Camp: Sunnyvale, California

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