Asia ‘may compete with UK’ on international students post-Covid

UK could face different competition for overseas students in future, but expert questions assumption that TNE will benefit 

June 12, 2020
Asian students
Source: iStock

The pandemic may lead to a rise in student mobility within Asia, with countries such as China and Malaysia potentially becoming major competitors to English-speaking countries, an international education expert has predicted.

John McNamara, global research manager for international education services at the British Council, said that intraregional mobility was “a rising phenomenon” before Covid-19 but it “might become even more so” in the wake of the crisis.

As a result, he said, “we might need to change our views about the competitor set” for the UK in terms of international student recruitment. “It might not just be about the major English-speaking destinations being the UK’s competitors; it might increasingly be countries like China and Malaysia,” he said.

It follows predictions in March by Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford, that East Asia will emerge as a regional hub for international student mobility.

Speaking at the British Council’s virtual Going Global event, Mr McNamara added that there may also be a trend towards “shorter periods of mobility”, such as a semester abroad instead of a full academic year, while these experiences may also include a “greater adoption of online learning”.

“What I think we need to think about is the extent to which Covid-19 might accelerate some of the trends that were already playing out in the background [before the pandemic],” he said, during a session on the shape of international higher education after 2020.

Mr McNamara also predicted that international student recruitment in the UK “won’t just be about China going forward”.

“People often ask who is the next China? There isn’t a next China, but there might be a more distributed approach across a number of different markets,” he said. 

Mr McNamara added that previous shocks to the sector, such as the global financial crash, have demonstrated “the resilience of student mobility”, and he said that an optimistic viewpoint in terms of the future of international higher education “is not necessarily the wrong one to have”.

Matt Durnin, global head of insights and consultancy for international education services at the British Council, said that there have been assumptions that transnational education will expand as a result of Covid-19, as students who would have previously wanted to study abroad will now opt to study TNE programmes in their own country.

However, he said that the council’s previous studies have found that “we’ve tended to overexaggerate how much these two things overlap”.

“They’re actually very distinct markets. When I’ve done focus groups with branch campus students I’ve rarely found that student who had a strong intention to study overseas and then changed to TNE,” he said. “But certainly the forces are aligned to maybe push students down that direction in the next year or two.”

Mr Durnin also questioned whether there was enough capacity within TNE to absorb a potential increase in short-term demand and, if there was, whether students would revert to their original patterns of mobility when the pandemic was over.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Four years of post study visa will be an excellent and competitive idea for uk, as this will attract more international students

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