Western Union Business SolutionsFutureproofing higher education for international students

Futureproofing higher education for international students

Western Union

A new report from Western Union Business Solutions highlights the ways in which universities can continue their impressive response to the coronavirus, writes Skyler Webster

Sectors worldwide are adapting to meet the new needs of their customers and staff during the coronavirus crisis, altering their products and services to help tackle the global pandemic. Higher education is a leading example of this.

Over the past few weeks, universities and colleges have risen to the challenge by offering their resources and working alongside government, health services and local communities to fight the virus. They’ve also been quick to introduce new policies and procedures to ensure that they continue to meet the needs of their students – both at home and abroad.

Institutions around the world have delivered an incredible emergency response, including the move to fully digital teaching and campuses closures to prevent the spread of infection. As well as keeping students and staff safe, there are additional long-term benefits.

Our new report – The Future of International Education – brings some of these benefits to light. Developed in partnership with The Future Laboratory, the report identifies five new types of international students, three of which are detailed below, and offers guidance about how academic institutions can evolve to continue to meet their expectations. The coronavirus pandemic makes the findings more relevant than ever, as the speed at which we may see these trends evolve will move much faster than we imagined.

Greater flexibility to meet the needs of ‘hybrid thinkers’

Offering digital modules means educational institutions can offer students greater flexibility, by giving them more control over when to study and by removing travel requirements, so that they have more time to try new courses. This is something Caroline Hoxby, a professor in economics at Stanford University, explained in a recent interview. Importantly, it will help universities and colleges meet the expectations of “hybrid thinkers”, one of the new international student groups our report uncovers.

Known as the “slash generation”, hybrid thinkers are unwilling to commit to a single career path because many jobs will cease to exist in the future. As a result, they expect greater flexibility from academic institutions, from customised degrees to sandwich courses, to ensure that they acquire the right skills for future job markets.

Digital courses can help institutions deliver this by enabling greater flexibility around term dates. If needed, degree programmes can be shortened for those who are unable to commit to longer term courses, for example, because they want to access rolling internships during the traditional academic year. In fact, in response to Covid-19, we are already seeing some of our university customers consider offering six-month courses beginning in January 2021, rather than the traditional nine months.

Accelerating digital transformation for ‘digital learners’

Our study also shows that many students regard technology as an extension of themselves, with 58 per cent saying that their online presence is just as important as offline. For this group of students, termed as “digital learners”, offering high-quality digital courses is vital to meet their needs.

Many universities and colleges have been upscaling their digital provisions in recent years, in response to demands from students. This explains why academic institutions have been able to adapt to the pandemic quickly and effectively: Covid-19 has simply accelerated their digital transformation. In the long term, the creation of the “smart campus” will become a reality, which is something 78 per cent of international students say they want, and which we explore further in our report.

Rethinking well-being for ‘mindful scholars’

As academic institutions reduce in-person interactions in response to Covid-19, it will be vital for them to ensure that the mental health of their students is protected. This is particularly important for international students, who find themselves in an unfamiliar country and rely on getting to know their cohort, and meeting people outside their classmates.

Our survey of international students found that 84 per cent of them already practise mindfulness, yet they also expect support from colleges and universities. Three out of four say that how a university looks after the well-being of its students influences whether they choose to study there – we call this group of international students “mindful scholars”.

When designing digital courses, universities and colleges should place interaction at the heart of them in order to encourage collaboration among students, to combat some of the risks of remote learning, which can leave some students feeling isolated. Institutions may also look to introduce more courses that teach emotional intelligence, whereby they teach academic courses combined with a focus on building resilience.

Playing a key role in the global recovery

Every sector in the world has fallen victim to Covid-19, with unemployment on the rise, sales plummeting and markets see-sawing with widespread volatility. In many ways, the global economy has come to a standstill, and new thinking will be crucial to delivering an economic recovery when the pandemic ends.

One way of achieving this will be to accelerate upskilling programmes worldwide, in which universities will have an important role to play. It will be those institutions that strike a balance between flexibility, digital transformation and supporting emotional well-being during unpredictable periods that will be best placed to lead this important work.

Skyler Webster is product director at Western Union Business Solutions.

Download The Future of International Education report.

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