Before COVID-19 struck, around five million students were undertaking degrees outside their home country. Travel restrictions and social isolation measures have and will continue to reduce these numbers dramatically.
The first impacts occurred when travel from China to Australia and New Zealand was blocked from 1 February, just weeks before the beginning of the academic year in those countries, resulting in tens of thousands of students being unable to commence their studies down under.
This pales in comparison with what we expect to happen over the next year, when in normal circumstances we would expect more than a million students to commence overseas studies. The scale of disruption will depend upon whether commencing students are able to travel in time to begin in the Northern Hemisphere in September or the Southern Hemisphere in July or March.
An obvious solution would be for students to commence their overseas studies online and then travel abroad when travel restrictions are lifted and on-campus study recommences. If programmes are being delivered online anyway and social isolation is in place in the destination country, it makes sense to study online from home where costs are lower. Some international students who were already studying abroad have returned home for this reason.
But how likely are students to undertake international degrees online if they can’t travel abroad? At present, students who are not able to travel are faced with three options – begin their overseas programme online, defer commencement until overseas on-campus study is possible or opt instead for a local study option.
The history of cross-border online degrees
A recent survey of 6,900 students by IDP Education found that, of those who had received an offer of a place in an overseas university, less than a third of students (31%) would be willing to start their course online and move to face-to-face learning at a later date.
Most would instead defer their commencement until on-campus study is possible. Those who would not consider starting online expressed concerns about missing the chance for international exposure (69%) and the standard of online teaching (47%).
This may be disappointing for those of us who teach online, but it is not really surprising, considering the history of cross-border online degrees. Although distance education has grown in scale and sophistication all over the world, very few students actually enrol in online degrees offered by universities based outside their home country.
The vast majority of ‘transnational students’ (located in one country but enrolled in an institution based in another country) attend either an international branch campus or a campus of a local institution that partners with the foreign degree provider. There are perhaps a million students around the world studying in this way, most commonly with United Kingdom, United States and Australian universities.
Repeated efforts over the past two decades to launch fully online degrees across borders have floundered.
One of the main reasons for this is a prejudice against online learning from international students, who seek much more from their investment in a study experience. The COVID-19 crisis has forced educators and students the world over to confront these prejudices, and the resulting forced adoption of digital learning solutions is likely to precipitate a step change in the use of educational technology everywhere.
Students all over the world are reconsidering their preconceptions about online study, sometimes being pleasantly surprised. But online learning puts more strain on international students, who are already dealing with the additional challenges of transitioning to new social and educational settings, adjusting to culture shock and developing language confidence.
Governments, too, are often prejudiced against international online study and many, including China and India, the places from which the largest numbers of mobile students come, refuse to recognise foreign online degrees, citing concerns about fake institutions, fake qualifications and poor-quality provision.
Even as those countries have promoted domestic online provision in recent years, they have maintained an opposition to recognising foreign programmes, seemingly for both protectionist and ideological reasons.
For instance, in response to a flood of enquiries from students and universities, the China Service Center for Scholarly Exchange advised in April that online courses taken due to the inability to attend campus will not influence the verification of foreign qualifications. While a sensible concession in the circumstances, this is hardly a vote of confidence in online learning. The situation in some other countries remains much less clear.
Online vs branch campus costs
Cost is another reason why cross-border online education has not been embraced. While international students are prepared to pay high tuition fees for an on-campus overseas experience, study options in their home country are usually more affordable.
Campus-based transnational education is usually able to be delivered at a significantly lower cost than at the university’s home campus. It is not unusual for tuition fees at an international branch campus to be half of those charged at the university’s home country campus. This is due to lower costs of labour and doing business in cities in middle-income countries where transnational education is concentrated.
The cost of online education, by contrast, is determined by costs in the provider’s home country, and the fees charged are usually the same regardless of where the student is located. For example, a student in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where my Melbourne-based university has a large campus, would pay far less tuition at our campus (which is among the most expensive study options in the city) than they would in an online degree taught out of Melbourne.
One possible solution would be to price online study differentially, based on the location of the student so that it is in line with other transnational education study options, such as branch campuses and partnered programmes. Such a pricing strategy is typical with other digital services, such as music and video streaming, where prices reflect local market conditions, but I am not aware of any university working this way.
Some universities are, in effect, doing this as a temporary measure by offering discounts on international fees for new students. But discounting online learning is a risky business, especially given the pressure coming from students around the world for universities to reduce tuition fees for online study during the COVID-19 crisis and the revenue shortfalls universities are facing.
Nevertheless, we could see a dramatic step change in cross-border online learning in coming months, if international students are pleasantly surprised by the quality and convenience of online study and if universities are quickly able to develop more attractive international pricing strategies that can cover the costs of provision while expanding affordability to students around the world.