Coronavirus: global student flows to suffer ‘massive hit’ for years

Western universities will have to ‘hunt’ for scarce overseas students, warns leading internationalisation scholar

March 26, 2020
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International student mobility will take at least five years to return to normal levels in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, while East Asia will emerge as a regional hub in the intervening period, a leading global higher education scholar has predicted.

Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford, said that developing countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will bear the brunt of a coronavirus-induced recession and that “a temporary shrinkage of the global middle class” will have a significant knock-on effect on international student flows to Western universities.

Speaking at Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum, held online, Professor Marginson said: “The overall position for international education is that it’s going to take a massive hit. I think that we’re looking at at least a five-year recovery period in terms of the global numbers of people who move between countries for education.”

He added that international education will become “a buyer’s market”, in which universities will be “hunting for scarce international students for some years to come”.

Meanwhile, health security will “for a long time become a major element in the decision-making of families and students about where they go for education”, he said during a panel discussion on risk and reputational challenges for international higher education.

However, Professor Marginson said it was likely that East Asia would recover quicker from the coronavirus both medically and in terms of its ability to provide face-to-face teaching than other regions.

This will result in internationally mobile students “coming out of East Asia earlier than they will out of other regions”, as well as countries such as China, South Korea and Japan becoming “larger providers of regional education than they have been”, he argued.

“What we’re now going to see is a shift of part of the [student] traffic that was going into North America, western Europe, the UK and Australia, going into other East Asian countries. That effect is likely to be permanent,” Professor Marginson said.

“If countries want to return to a major role in international education quicker than they otherwise would then assistance from government in the form of ramping up the industry and subsidising some student movement will become very important.”

Professor Marginson also spoke about universities’ shift to online education and said that universities in the northern hemisphere are “looking at a new academic year that is predominantly or wholly online”.

“Realistically we are not going to see a return to face-to-face education in September,” he said, adding that while online education would not replace face-to-face teaching in the long run in general, for “some institutions only online provision is going to be viable for cost reasons in the longer term”.

He said that online learning “needs to be seen as a substantially different product, a different educational experience…and as such it will need a separate pricing structure”.

Shearer West, vice-chancellor and president of the University of Nottingham, who also spoke at the event, said that the overseas campus model had “begun to look a bit rusty and old-fashioned” over the past few years in the wake of the growth of global higher education, but her institution’s sites abroad have been “an asset” during the current crisis.

Professor West said that the institution developed online learning facilities when its Ningbo campus in China shut down in January, which it has since been able to repurpose at its UK campus, while a hospital in Ningbo is “sharing its learnings with the Nottingham University Hospitals Trust”.

“We may be turning inward to the new dystopian dark ages but I think global fluency and global connections are going to be even more important in the future, especially in the arena of international research collaboration,” she said.

“Global higher education as it exists now is in danger of fast obsolescence but, in my view, we need to be imaginative in how we reinvent that for that post-Covid generation.”

Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said that the UK university sector was now “looking over the edge into a very significant financial abyss” and “we are uncertain where the bottom will be”.

He added that universities will need to undertake “a massive and coordinated effort to ensure that, when normality returns, we can recover quickly”, not least because the higher education sector will “play a vital role in helping our towns and cities recover”.

“The ways in which the sector has responded to this current crisis will further embed universities into their communities, showing that they are truly anchor institutions in their regions,” he added.


Print headline: Student mobility to take ‘massive hit’

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