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International student flows and Covid-19 realities

International student advisors and counsellors around the world have been navigating new ways to support students amid the constant flux in Covid-19 news and policies that continue to affect students’ future education and career plans. In today’s world, this is not an easy task.

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"Along with China and India, other top sending countries included Germany, Vietnam, South Korea, and France"

As part of a global research team, I can also attest that academic mobility researchers from around the world have come together to discuss how to adequately measure the international education experiences of globally mobile students throughout these uncertain times and provide counselors with the information they need to best guide students interested in an education abroad.

A forthcoming joint paper by the Institute of International Education and the International Career and College Counseling(IC3) Movement, set out to document the state of international student mobility in May 2021 as context for upcoming discussions on responsible counselling at the 5thAnnual IC3 Conference set to take place in Delhi, India and virtually from August 25-26.

The paper explores significant international student mobility trends before the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of the United States and other host countries in offering international students academic opportunities, and the increased competitiveness among countries to attract international students.

It also considers the effects of Covid-19 on global student mobility and how the pandemic has comparatively affected international students and the countries that serve as their hosts.

Understanding Mobility Flows

Before the world experienced the effect of Covid-19, international student mobility had already reached 5.6 million according to UNESCO, and was on pace to reach more than 8m students by 2025 (Böhm et al., 2004).

As the number of international students has grown over the last 20 years, the destinations of these students have shifted, reflecting increased global competition among countries that want to attract international students to their borders. In 2020, one in every five globally mobile students (or 20%) studied in the US (Project Atlas, 2020). After the US, the next largest hosts are the UK and Canada.

“The anticipated drop in fall 2020 international student enrolment for many countries was not as steep as initially predicted”

While students from China and India made up more than 50% of the international students in most leading host countries (including the US), these two countries made up only one-quarter of all international students in 2020 (UNESCO, 2020). Other top sending countries included Germany, Vietnam, South Korea, and France.

International Student Mobility amid the Covid-19 Pandemic

When Covid-19 disrupted travel and daily activities in the first half of 2020, many predicted significant impact on international student enrolment (American Council on Education, 2020; DiMaria, 2020). However, the anticipated drop in fall 2020 international student enrolment for many countries was not as steep as initially predicted by higher education leaders and researchers at the start of the pandemic.

A closer look at the data from leading host countries reveals several emergent trends around international student enrolments:

  • Short-term exchange (typically one year or less) student enrolment numbers decreased markedly.
  • Continuing international degree-seeking (typically academic study of more than one year) student enrolment was stable.
  • Enrolment figures varied when looking closely by institution type.

This surprising turn of events can be credited, in part, to remarkably innovative and flexible higher education institutions worldwide.

How did higher education institutions respond?

Among the leading host countries, nearly every higher education institution reported pivoting to a virtual or hybrid model of instruction at some point during the 2020/2021 academic year to provide students with instructional continuity.

Throughout the 2020/2021 academic year, higher education institutions continuously assessed instructional priorities alongside public health and safety guidelines. The mode of instruction for students who were enrolled during the 2021/2021 academic year had implications for other aspects of students’ lives, including their mental health and wellness and finances. Higher education institutions across the globe partnered with organisations and associations to respond to students’ varied needs.

What’s next?

As we near the end of the summer, higher education institutions are focused on preparations for the fall semester. Many institutions have found themselves caught between their desire to support international students and their countries’ travel, immigration, and public health policies.

Despite these barriers, the last 18 months have shown all of us that international education will continue in its many forms, with students interested in an education abroad and many countries eager to host them this fall and in the future.

The report will be released at the 5thAnnual IC3 Conference on 26 August 2021. To register for the conference, visit

To read the full report, watch the IIE Publications and IC3 Movement websites on August 26.

About the author:

Leah Mason is from the Research, Evaluation, and Learning Unit at the Institute of International Education.

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