Higher education can expect at least 12 months of “abnormal conditions” from the COVID-19 pandemic – with at least five years before global student mobility recovers, according to Professor Simon Marginson, the director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, a partnership of 14 universities with its headquarters at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Speaking to the online International Higher Education Forum 2020 organised by Universities UK, and for which University World News is a media partner, Marginson said: “International higher education is going to take a massive hit” – with the pandemic expected to last longer in Europe and North America “because of the need to flatten the curve and minimise the casualties” than in East Asian countries which handled the coronavirus differently at the outset.
Economists, he said, were suggesting “a possible 10% reduction of global GDP and a very long recovery period – with the greatest impact, both economically and in terms of health issues, in the emerging countries from which we draw many of our students, in South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sub-Saharan Africa”.
Shrinking middle class
This, he said, would shrink the global middle class which had sustained the growth of international student mobility.
The major impact will be in English-speaking destination countries that had been used to a supply-driven industry taking in “as many students as their visa policies have allowed”, said Marginson.
“In the near future, at least, this is going to be flipped around to a buyer’s market, where we will be hunting scarce international students for some years to come.”
Another new factor will be that health security could become a major element in the decision-making of families and students about where they go for education and the way countries handle coming out of the pandemic will be very important for future reputation.
Looking to the new academic year, starting this autumn in the northern hemisphere, Marginson said: “Realistically we are not going to see a return to face-to-face education at scale. We are looking at a new academic year which is predominately, or wholly, online, and I think the situation is likely to persist into 2021.”
Some institutions could decide to become wholly online providers to survive, while others will gradually return to face-to-face education “because families will continue to want the sort of immersion experience their children get going offshore to a foreign country and living in a foreign language environment” and because online learning may be seen as having lower status.
Quicker East Asia recovery
Marginson said with East Asia recovering quicker medically, one effect will be that there will be more students in the region. He warned there could be a shift in movement patterns with fewer opting for North America, Western Europe, the UK and Australia – and more deciding to stay closer to home and study in China, South Korea or Japan.
“That effect is likely to be permanent,” said Marginson, who also expects South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa to suffer the most from the impact of COVID-19, with the movement of students out of these countries likely to be slower and their recovery taking longer.
Traditional host countries, such as the UK, are going to have to provide a better student experience, including better health security and more subsidies, if they want to compete for international students “as the capacity of families to buy into international education on the scale they had is now gone”, said Marginson.
Professor Carole Mundell, chief scientific adviser at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, speaking at the same session focusing on risk and reputational challenges, said the impressive way universities had moved their courses and activities online and “mobilised final-year medical students who are now being deployed on the frontline” should stand the university sector in good stead in the challenging years ahead.
“Without high quality education for those students, they would not be fit for purpose, but they are going right into our hospitals to deliver medical care,” she said, adding that researchers across many disciplines were also thinking creatively, under pressure, to come up with innovative ways to help the country through the COVID-19 crisis.
“This has crystallised the whole of the business platform and focused on what universities are really for,” said Mundell, who urged university leaders to capture this spirit and inspire their academics and “help to quell some of the stresses and strains that many of our academic colleagues are feeling at the moment, just as they felt during Brexit”.
COVID-19 online courses
In another session during IHEF 2020, Simon Nelson, the chief executive officer of the online platform FutureLearn, gave several examples of the rapid way higher education was responding to the coronavirus crisis and the rush to move learning online as campuses closed their physical doors all over the world.
Working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, FutureLearn had developed a course on COVID-19, which had attracted 90,000 enrolments from 90 countries within its first few days.
FutureLearn had also created an online course with St George’s, University of London “specifically for health care workers who are on the frontline”. This covered understanding how to diagnose the coronavirus and how to protect yourself and others in the working environment.
Nelson said: “This course was only spoken about 10 days ago. Previously this kind of thing would have taken months and months to get up and running, but it is available to enrol on today,” he told the conference on 25 March.
FutureLearn is also providing special English-language courses with the help of the British Council and a new course to help teachers overcome the challenges of teaching online for the first-time.
New age transnational education
Also speaking at IHEF, Professor Shearer West, vice-chancellor at the University of Nottingham in the UK, foresaw a new age for transnational education (TNE), drawing on her institution’s experience with its two campuses in China and one in Malaysia.
The University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo was shut down during the coronavirus outbreak in China and academics in both the UK and China learnt a lot of lessons quickly as they crisis-managed while staff and students were forbidden to return to the Chinese campus.
She admitted the old model of an overseas campus had “began to look a bit rusty and old-fashioned”, but predicted a new lease of life for TNE operations, while drawing on recent COVID-19 experiences of managing to continue to educate students online while buildings were closed.
“I now feel they [overseas campuses] will provide us with an asset that in many ways will help [us] through the crisis in globalisation,” she said.
“We may be turning inwards… but global connections are going to be even more important in the future, especially in the arena of international research collaboration.
“I think 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 the post-COVID generation.”
Further sessions of the IHEF 2020 will take place on line on 20 April, 22 April and 24 April, as detailed here.
Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for European universities and specialist higher education media.