Higher education and the pandemic: key trends to watch in 2021

Few areas of higher education and research have been left untouched by the Covid-19 pandemic – and during 2020, trends emerged that the academic community will be keeping a close eye on in 2021. Here, we look at five and what the coming months may bring

January 15, 2021
Researchers in PPE
Source: Getty

International student recruitment

Much of the focus of the effects of the pandemic on higher education last year was related to the impact it would have on international recruitment, particularly in countries that have come to rely heavily on such students for income (and research talent).

However, due to the way data are collected and published in different countries, the overall picture is still patchy and uncertain on the exact damage that Covid will do both in the short and long term in this area.

Some of the clearest and most worrying figures have come from the US, where the Institute of International Education said the number of international students starting courses – whether on campus or remotely – had nosedived by more than 40 per cent.

In the UK, there is more uncertainty with anecdotal reports suggesting recruitment has held up well but visa figures showing a dramatic fall in those physically seeking to come to the UK from key markets like China.

This highlights one of the key sources of uncertainty over final recruitment for 2019-20 and beyond, said Janet Ilieva, founder and director of international education consultancy Education Insight.

Over the longer term, she said, “the boundaries between education provision in the home country of the education institution and education delivered overseas through the means of TNE [transnational education] will be even more blurred”.

“The difference between international students on campus and those overseas will disappear in the mid to long term,” Dr Ilieva added, something that could also be influenced by attempts to cut down on travel as a way to mitigate climate change, she said.

Outgoing student mobility from China

A counterbalance to the questions about international recruitment is how the pandemic is changing, or accelerating, trends in outgoing mobility, particularly in relation to China.

Several experts have predicted that the crisis will speed up the “regionalisation” of mobility, with Chinese students looking to study in other countries around Asia or even, as pandemic trends are indicating, studying online and not leaving at all.

Looking at how increasing outbound mobility from China has fuelled international flows in the last 10 years, this suggests we could be about to witness a fundamental change in international student movements.

However, Janet Ilieva of Education Insight said the longer-term picture was still uncertain.

Some in-country surveys during the pandemic have reported “reluctance among Chinese students to study abroad” and a shift in mobility towards East Asia, but other indicators have suggested the UK still enjoys “a growing popularity” with Chinese students compared with other study destinations such as  the US and Australia.

The rise of preprints

At the start of the pandemic, the use of preprints to disseminate research on Covid-19 exploded as scientists around the world scrambled to get a handle on the virus and its societal implications.

The data suggest that this tailed off through 2020 as more peer-reviewed research emerged, but there have still been suggestions that the pandemic will prompt a permanent shift towards a greater use of preprints in the international research community.

However, according to figures from the Dimensions platform – which includes data on both preprint and peer-reviewed research – from Digital Science, the pandemic may have merely been the icing on the cake for a rise in preprint use that was already on an upward curve.

According to the data, about 400,000 preprint articles were published in 2020, an increase of 47 per cent on the year before. Although 39,000 of these were classified as Covid-related papers, this still meant non-Covid preprints grew by a third, a rate of increase that was higher than the previous two years.

Daniel Hook, chief executive of Digital Science, said it was possible that the use of preprints for Covid research – and the general discussion around their increasing use – had drawn other researchers to try them out. But the data pointed to the arrival in recent years of new platforms like Research Square as boosting a trend that is set to continue upwards.

Research collaboration

Restrictions on international travel that started in 2020 and have continued into 2021 have prompted questions about how collaboration across borders will be affected in the longer term.

While some of the early data on general patterns of collaboration in 2020 have suggested that scientists around the globe have continued to work together despite the restrictions, one key concern is how new networks can continue to flourish without physical spaces such as conferences in which to meet and exchange ideas.

Specific data on Covid-related research have also raised questions about whether political factors may have played a role in changing the balance between domestic and international research in some areas.

Jenny Lee, a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, who has studied collaboration patterns during the pandemic with her colleague John Haupt, said that “given the expected rise of vaccine nationalism, there will likely be increasing attention on the intersection between science and geopolitics”.

However, she added that the most interesting finding to emerge from their research in 2020 was that internationally collaborative research was still on the rise “despite geopolitical tensions”.

“The scientific research pie will continue to enlarge in both domestic and international research. Whether the share of international collaboration significantly rises or falls will be a key question to follow in 2021,” she added.

The impact of lockdowns on women in academia

With a number of countries implementing strict lockdowns – including, crucially, school closures – again through the winter in a bid to contain Covid-19 there is likely to be a renewed focus of its impact on female researchers.

Last year, studies suggested that there had been a drop-off in the rate at which women were authoring research during the spring period when lockdowns across Europe and North America meant children were at home.

Megan Frederickson, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto, who has investigated the phenomenon, said that despite the findings she was not hopeful that universities had put measures in place to support female researchers in time for the latest set of lockdowns.

“From what I’ve seen, there has been widespread acceptance that lockdowns have had a greater impact on women researchers, but few universities are attempting to do anything meaningful about it,” Dr Frederickson said, adding that this needed addressing post-Covid, too.

“In the long term, we can’t achieve gender equity in academia without gender balance in caregiving and domestic labour, as well as in teaching and service obligations.” 


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