With Covid-19 bringing lockdowns, institution closures, and – perhaps most problematic of all for our sector – global travel restrictions, the question arises: what does this mean for international higher education?
While the coronavirus crisis has irrefutably affected how our sector operates, we must acknowledge that there were challenges to face long before the pandemic shone a spotlight on them.
Arguably, the most pressing of these is the power of e-learning: digitally enhanced learning has been a growing presence for many years, with practically all European universities involved in e-learning in its various forms.
The global travel restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 have merely expedited a transformation that was well under way before the pandemic.
“[E-learning] has certainly been a life-saver for international education this year”
This shift has been described as being ‘turbo charged’ by the virus, and online learning has even been called a ‘panacea’ for the sector. It’s certainly been a life-saver for international education this year, and, although at first glance it might seem a threat to international education, it has also opened up opportunities that are likely to outlive 2020.
Making use of e-learning has provided flexibility in how students learn and study during a restrictive period. In fact, a blend of digital and in-person learning has proven remarkably popular with many students.
Digital tools have also given us new ways of engaging with students before they travel, creating new social networks and communities that transcend borders. At Kaplan, these are all things we’re excited to continue developing.
However, it is also clear that e-learning can come with its own difficulties and limitations if not factored into design and delivery.
For instance, the mental wellbeing of students and staff is one of the biggest challenges that the coronavirus crisis has brought to prominence; in a purely digital environment, how can we ensure that no-one is left behind? How can we make sure that students receive the support they need to thrive?
As Michael Gaebel of the European University Association notes, “We should not forget the international students, who found themselves in a particularly challenging situation, abroad, at home, and often somewhere in between… The social experience on and around campuses is an important aspect of the student experience. Just being physically on campus is for many students a motivation to learn.”
Indeed, anecdotally, among Kaplan Pathways students who have travelled to the UK since September for a blended learning experience, there is a strong sentiment that they have made the right choice, with many placing great value on their in-destination study experience.
Thus, while e-learning may indeed have tenure in one form or another, it’s unlikely to become a substitute for the experience of studying abroad; nor will increasingly robust home-country education systems always entice students into staying at home.
The desire to encounter unfamiliar cultures, immerse oneself in a new language and learn how to live in a different country will not be lost to the pandemic.
Moreover, our 21st-century world rewards international experience; employers in particular have long held it in high regard when assessing candidates.
QS research has shown that six out of 10 employers around the world give extra credit for international student experience, and that although linguistic ability was the most highly valued attribute among international graduates, intercultural communication was also a high priority for employers.
As well as impressing potential employers, studying abroad has been proven to have a direct impact on career success once graduates are in work.
A 2017 Institute of International Education study demonstrates that “studying abroad has a positive impact on the development of a range of skills needed to thrive in today’s interconnected world, with 60% or more reporting positive skill gains in 14 of the 15 career skills surveyed, and significant gains in 11 of the 15 skill surveyed”.
Looking beyond the pandemic, international students graduating from university with these enhanced skills are likely to bolster their chances of success in today’s global workforce.
“Studying abroad has been proven to have a direct impact on career success”
The crucial importance of international and interpersonal experiences could therefore be the life raft that pulls our sector to shore once the coronavirus storm has passed.
During a time when little is certain, this much seems clear: an international education will always hold high value in a world where connecting with people across cultures is so essential to growth, both economic and personal.
This international experience, when coupled with the advantages of a well-designed blended learning programme, can provide students with a truly enriching experience. It’s a combination that could well shape the future of higher education.
About the author:
Linda Cowan is Managing Director of Kaplan International Pathways and leads on Kaplan’s pathways and international strategy activities with universities in the UK. Prior to joining Kaplan, Linda worked in senior international education roles for the universities of Newcastle, Birmingham and Abertay. She has worked across various regions in her career, including a couple of years in India.