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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 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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