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.