International Education’s Rebound: Rebranding – or Renaissance?

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused sweeping changes to international education, writes Graham Pike of Vancouver Island University. Border closures and movement restrictions have cleared campuses, while both educational institutions and students have been forced to shift to digital, remote learning. If these factors have not been enough of a shock, the pandemic could build upon the questions being asked by an even more powerful phenomenon: climate change and the effect of the world’s 6 million mobile students on greenhouse gas emissions.

International Education’s Rebound: Rebranding – or Renaissance?

Off to see the world – often paying full price: Indian students get their visas at the US Consulate in Mumbai, 2017 (Credit: US Consulate, Mumbai)

Well before the emergence of Covid-19, there were murmurs of discontent in some sectors of the international education community, despite impressive growth. The number of mobile students – those pursuing formal education in institutions outside their home country – had risen consistently from around 1.7 million in 1995 to more than 6 million in 2019 and looked set to reach 8 million by 2025. International education was a US$40 billion business in the United States alone.

So why the discontent? A key cause is that the principal driver of international education’s growth has been the quest for revenue, critical in the case of many higher-education institutions, from international students’ tuition fees, which are typically 3-5 times the amount of domestic tuition. Notwithstanding the real and much-vaunted academic and social benefits gained from international collaboration and a multicultural campus, the economic imperative has shaped not only the international education movement but also the face of higher education globally.

Revenue from rapidly rising international tuition fees has subsidized the true costs of higher education in many countries, enabling governments to cut back their contributions and creating an unsustainable dependence in less wealthy institutions on international students. It has also spawned troubling inequities in access to higher education, whereby the potentially life-long privileges of an international credential are available only to the small percentage of students whose families occupy a spot in a country’s wealthy elite. The original altruistic goals of international education – the enhancement of higher learning through the pursuit of international collaboration and intercultural understanding – are being undermined by the business model that it has developed.

Signs of the times: The pandemic has disrupted higher education, with international students wondering whether to venture abroad – or stay at home (Credit – top: JHVEPhoto /, bottom: Anthony Crider)

Signs of the times: The pandemic has disrupted higher education, with international students wondering whether to venture abroad – or stay at home (Credit – top: JHVEPhoto /, bottom: Anthony Crider)

The global spread of Covid-19 has dealt a shocking blow to what seemed to be the unstoppable train of international education’s growth. While many international students have now accepted the necessity of studying online, preliminary forecasts indicate declines in international tuition revenue of up to 60 percent in some institutions for the coming semester. Campuses will be bereft of the multiple languages, cultures and perspectives that have so enriched them in recent years. Students who were looking forward to the transformative experience of learning and living in a new country will, at best, pursue their academic goals in familiar home environments. And yet, the pandemic presents exciting and unparalleled opportunities for rethinking and renewal in the international education movement. The question is: Will the result be a modified version of the existing model, a rebranding – or could the pandemic be the catalyst for more radical change, a renaissance?

The impact of the pandemic

Covid-19 will undoubtedly bring about change in international education as a result of several key interrelated factors affecting student mobility:

Health  As institutions around the world prepare for some or all of their students’ return to campus, students will make up their own minds about personal health and safety, at least until a reliable vaccine is widely available. For some, the online option will be preferable, even though they miss out on the in-country experience of being an international student. If second and subsequent waves of the virus continue to affect the primary international student destinations, the number of students selecting this option will rise. Others will decide to move on with their lives or defer their start date. 

Politics  Students and their families will be aware of the numerous reports indicating how some countries are perceived to have responded to the pandemic more effectively than others due to factors such as political leadership, health resources, technology and the response of citizenry. Such factors will contribute to an uneven return to pre-Covid-19 numbers of international students, favoring some countries (e.g. Australia, Canada, Germany, South Korea) over others (e.g. France, Spain, the UK, the US).

Economics  The pandemic has decimated economies, large and small, around the world. While the impacts are unevenly distributed, adversely affecting workers in lower-paid jobs in industries such as hospitality and tourism, inevitably some current and prospective international students will be unable to pay the high tuition fees and accompanying living and travel costs. Increased competition for jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors will also affect the ability of some students to cover their costs while living abroad. For some, studying online represents an acceptable and cheaper option.

Technology  Covid-19 has shattered some deeply engrained assumptions about the efficacy of teaching and learning. Teachers have discovered, through necessity, that there are alternative ways to deliver their material, while learners have found out that they do not need to be in a classroom. While most surveys still indicate a strong preference for face-to-face teaching and learning, the numbers willing to accept online or hybrid programs will grow as the technology becomes more sophisticated and both teachers and learners become more proficient. This will also add an exciting new international education demographic – students who, for cultural, economic or family reasons, would never have considered pursuing higher education through an international institution.

These factors suggest that a return to the pre-Covid-19 normal in international education is highly unlikely even in the longer term. Perhaps even more significant in terms of future projections are the changes in student expectations that the pandemic has begun to engender. Given the widely recognized benefits of international education to a student’s work and life prospects, the overall number of those seeking international credentials will continue to grow, though mobile students will decline in number.

As consumers in a highly competitive marketplace, international students were already beginning to demand greater flexibility, with a preference for shorter programs and micro-credentials that can be fashioned into an individually customized package. Required foundation and preparatory programs such as English as a Second Language (ESL) are declining in popularity in the major anglophone destinations as students seek cheaper alternatives in their own or neighboring countries. As remote learning becomes more available and more effective, such demands for flexibility will intensify. Institutions around the world that can meet these demands through smart campus technology, creative online teaching, and a preparedness to grant and accept transfer credits to/from a broad range of institutions and countries will see growth in international students but not necessarily their presence on campus.

The challenge of sustainable development

Predicated on the belief that immersion in a different cultural environment provides the optimum educational experience, and nurtured by the lure of international travel for those who can afford it, the international education industry has been for a long time a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. More than 6 million mobile students, many returning home to other continents in between semesters, is good for the travel industry but not for the planet. A plethora of multi-country recruitment tours, partnership development missions and international conferences, all geared to promote further academic mobility, enlarges the carbon footprint. Outside the travel industry itself, there can be few professions of similar size that are so dependent on moving people from one part of the world to another. Furthermore, the education abroad experience often stimulates a lifelong desire for international travel.

Following the wider call from institutions around the world for higher education to assume a leading role in pursuit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), leading international educators are beginning to consider their roles and responsibilities in the quest for more sustainable lifestyles. The search for a model of international education that is more accessible, more equitable and more sustainable has been assisted, in a surprisingly short time period, by the multiple effects of Covid-19.

Taking a punt, Oxford, England: Nothing beats the full cultural experience – but at what cost to the environment? (Credit: Meraj Chhaya)

Taking a punt, Oxford, England: Nothing beats the full cultural experience – but at what cost to the environment? (Credit: Meraj Chhaya)

Those institutions that are dependent on international tuition revenue for survival have been shocked into seeking alternative funding sources and dealing with deficits. Teaching faculty in colleges and universities have been forced to innovate and experiment with new methods of course delivery and assessment for students in multiple time zones; their IT colleagues have been pressured into upgrading their systems to enable widespread use of, and accessibility to, remote learning platforms. Students, whether returning home or staying abroad, have had to alter their expectations of classroom learning and peer collaboration.

There is a downside, of course, to these innovations. Certainly, some institutions that were heavily dependent on international tuition revenue will not survive and jobs in the industry will be lost. Some students will struggle to cope with remote learning due to technology limitations, time-zone challenges and a lack of a suitable learning space in their homes. Instructors of programs with integral “hands-on” components such as labs and co-op or internship placements will have the most challenges in finding alternatives that meet their learning goals. Some of the trades programs in colleges will be hardest hit in this regard.

Perhaps the biggest loss will be the lack of cultural immersion for students in their chosen country. While many institutions are planning “virtual mobility” experiences, nothing is quite as stimulating as immersion in another culture. Furthermore, it is the in-country experience that is usually critical to a primary long-term objective of many international students: the opportunity to work, live and apply for permanent residence.

Rebranding or renaissance?

In the excitement of returning to “normal”, will pre-Covid-19 concerns about the future direction of international education fade and the sector simply be rebranded? Will a golden opportunity to make radical reforms be missed? Will the business model of international education again overshadow the responsibilities of higher education institutions to demonstrate their pursuit of the SDGs, including action on climate change?

Radically different models are possible, blending the best technological innovations of the pandemic era with the undoubted value of deep cultural immersion. A hybrid model of learning at home but encompassing a stay in the country of choice could provide much wider access for lower-income students to quality programs around the world. International degrees could incorporate courses from multiple institutions in different countries with an integral study-abroad component in one country.

For a true renaissance in international education, institutional and governmental cooperation is vital. While hybrid teaching and learning approaches may result in continued growth in the numbers of international students, the focus on international students as a way to balance institutional budgets is not compatible with the global citizenship rhetoric found in college and university mission statements, nor is it in the longer-term interests of wider accessibility to higher education. National strategies for international education will need to be more aligned with the SDGs.

A country’s pursuit of international students as temporary or casual workers, or to fulfill immigration targets in countries with low birth rates, constitutes a drain on key resources of developing nations where those skills are most needed. The unequal flow of mobile students, with few travelling from the Global North to the Global South, misses a great opportunity for students from more developed countries to learn about the history, culture and achievements of the majority world. Covid-19 presents an extraordinary opportunity for international education to take stock, reimagine and move forward with a vison that is inspired by current realities and charts a responsible path for the future.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Graham Pike

Graham Pike

Vancouver Island University

Graham Pike is honorary research associate in the Faculty of Education at Vancouver Island University (VIU) in Canada. He served as dean of international education at VIU from 2009 to 2018. Prior to that, he had been dean of education at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) and before that was co-director of the Centre for Global Education at the University of Toronto. He has served as a consultant in over 20 countries including work for non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in developing curricula on human rights and environmental education.

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