With five million cases registered worldwide and 330,100 deaths as of 21 May, the coronavirus pandemic is having a rapid and wide-reaching impact on the higher education sector and international students and universities should be looking at what this means for future internationalisation of higher education.
The “sudden and unexpected shock” of the crisis has “disrupted the whole system of higher education all over the world”, said Francisco Marmolejo, education advisor to the Qatar Foundation and former World Bank lead on higher education based in New Delhi.
“In just the period of two months all the higher education systems across the world have been shut down.
“Institutions had to deal with the urgent, while delaying the important. Many institutions had to make a quick transition towards continuing offering [online teaching] as a remedial activity just in the short term,” he noted.
Classes moved online with variable success, but indications are that some may continue for a whole semester or even into the next academic year.
Families are already questioning whether it is worth paying to send their children to university if the courses are only online, Marmolejo told a webinar on “International Higher Education and COVID-19, the Implications for India”, organised by India’s Jio Institute on 14 May, adding that this was disrupting the business model of universities.
Can internationalisation of universities – often equated with student mobility and sending students abroad or attracting them from other countries – survive and recover? Marmolejo asked rhetorically, pointing out that “many of the significant inadequacies and limitations of international higher education have become more explicit, and, even more, many of the assumptions about international higher education are being challenged”.
Marmolejo noted that globally more than 200 million students in higher education worldwide have been unable to attend classes on campus during the crisis.
Approximately 70% of around five million international students had returned to their home countries, “which creates a significant challenge because at least 30% of the students are still abroad and many times they are facing significant challenges, either feeling abandoned or suffering discrimination, often with no financial capacity to survive and sometimes with legal problems in terms of retaining their visa and issues related to their presence in the other country,” he said.
Effects on study abroad
Already countries that rely significantly on international students, such as Australia, “which is really struggling to figure out how it will resolve the problem,” will be badly affected, particularly if international students do not go back for a semester or a year. Several countries are already beginning to think of the implications of this.
Surveys carried out since April 2020, including one by QS found that 63% of those who had been planning to study abroad before the pandemic already indicated they intended to defer until next year, and 10% cancelled their study plans altogether, while just 11% said they would study elsewhere.
Others pointed to general uncertainty, adopting a wait and see approach.
Referring to those who have deferred or cancelled their plans, “a good number of the 73% are from India which means they will not go abroad. So where will they go? Well, they will stay in India,” said Marmolejo. “The question is: Is the system of higher education in India prepared to cope with those students?”
In an analysis conducted by Marmolejo of relevant Google searches for study abroad between February and April, “the term ‘online courses’ became extremely popular and the term ‘study abroad’ basically disappeared from Google search popularity. This gives an idea of the sentiment of people right now or in the idea of going abroad,” he said.
Worldwide, Google searches for study abroad plummeted between 22 February and 21 March, while searches for online courses began to rise from early March onwards reaching a high in mid-April as many universities began to use online learning as a substitute.
In another Studyportals analysis, the element of Indian students looking at Australia as a destination has disappeared.
Searches for the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom as a destination similarly dropped when significant outbreaks were recorded in those countries, and for the US and Canada showed dramatic drops compared to the same time in 2019.
For the US, Canada and the UK, “at this point many Indian students and their families who were originally thinking about going abroad are no longer considering this possibility,” Marmolejo noted.
Even in the US it is expected that 72% of institutions will experience a decline in international students, although some indications from surveys are that it could be short term.
But “once things become normal under the ‘new normal’, the competition for talent globally will be furious,” Marmolejo said. “Countries like India can either continue to be feeders of international students in the world or will join in the game and try to become a more competitive system at the international level.”
There is a risk that institutions faced with significant challenges now may think that this is not the time to engage in internationalisation, but Marmolejo warned “that will be a significant mistake. This is not the time to give up on internationalisation.”
“This is the time to keep involved and make changes in such a way that institutions more effectively address the challenges.” These include what he called “some of the dogmas of internationalisation” such as whether it is just about attracting international students. But also to look at how out of date academic programmes are, and how to redesign them to attract students and make them more appropriate during a time of change.
While institutions transitioned to online teaching, not everywhere in the world and not in all cases has it been possible for students to access it.
“It is anticipated that about 60% of the teaching delivery has been transferred to remote online but that means that 40% of the students globally, both domestic and international, are not experiencing the same opportunity for teaching and learning and consequently are facing a significant learning deficit,” Marmolejo said.
In some countries the transition was relatively fast. In the US, for instance, within a few days most institutions were able to start teaching online, Marmolejo noted, adding: “But that is not the case all over the world.”
Few were prepared. “For most of the teaching, there has been a significant improvisation. For many teachers the idea of teaching in the classroom against teaching in front of a computer means doing exactly the same, but for the students it is not. So we know this is a very short-term solution.”
For online learning, this is a moment to ask “in which ways it is possible to measure the real value-added that students are having from online learning and to compare that to the regular value-added [from campus teaching]”, he said.
“This is a great opportunity, to gather information, to obtain evidence and to really measure what happens and what works and what doesn’t work,” Marmolejo said.