International students in a COVID-19 world

30 Nov 2020

International students in a COVID-19 world

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on many aspects of university leadership and operations worldwide, with the new academic year turning thoughts to international student recruitment. We ask Vice Chancellors in Australia, Canada and the UK what impacts they have seen, and how those will influence the future in their markets.

This month, we are In Global Conversation with Professor Margaret Gardner, Professor Feridun Hamdullahpur and Professor Mark Smith. Below are some excerpts from the Vice Chancellors responses, to read the full interview, please click here
We know that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the international student market. How exposed is your national higher education market and what does it look like for 2020-2025?

Margaret Gardner: “…COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the importance and contribution of the international student market to the overall quality, vibrancy and reputation of Australia’s higher education sector. Modelling from Universities Australia shows that Australia’s universities could lose $16 billion in revenue between now and 2023…”

Feridun Hamdullahpur: “…The real question is, how do we as a nation ensure the safety of our country from an increase in COVID-19 cases while allowing our incoming international students to come and take part in a rewarding educational experience on campus? It is a tricky balance that institutions are facing as we continue to navigate working…”

Mark Smith: “…At Southampton, we are in the middle of the pack in terms of typical exposure if we look at the impact of COVID-19 on international students. However, it is important to see this impact in the context of longer-term trends, rather than as just short-term reactions…”

What long term strategies are you adapting or adopting to mitigate the impact on operations?

Margaret: “…From the outset of the pandemic, universities have been implementing a range of strategies to mitigate the impact on operations, both in the immediate and long-term…However, in the absence of government support and in the uncertain context of border closures and the impact of subsequent outbreaks, those longer-term challenges still remain…”

Feridun: “…longer-term there are two important aspects of operational activity that COVID-19 has revealed for universities. The first of which is the changing nature of the workforce, particularly in the increase of working from home. We have to consider what challenges and opportunities that creates, both in the size of the workforce and its composition…”

Mark: “…COVID-19 has shown us very clearly, that despite technology and quality online products, there is a very significant market that still wants to have the travel element and the on-campus experience…Online will play a strong role going forward, but the message we have received from our students is that a wholesale shift to online delivery would be a loss…”

International students play a critical role beyond the classroom, and the financial implications extend into the broader economy. What support is your government putting in place in recognition of the broader impact on the national economy, and from your perspective is there more needed?

Margaret: “…While there is recognition of the important contribution of international students…there is a need for a more proactive approach to supporting international students as the pandemic continues to unfold. In the Australian context, both state and federal governments have been engaged in supporting international students…”

Feridun: “…International students contribute so much to our local and national economies, but they also make us a more vibrant and innovative society. The Canadian and Ontario governments understand the significant benefits of our international students. They also recognize the unique challenges that students face with the COVID-19 pandemic…”

Mark: “…Overseas student fees play a role in underpinning the sustainability of the UK research endeavour, which means that a potentially volatile income stream underpins that. When stable, it works well – but when you experience volatility, for example in this COVID-19 context, it makes the fundamental model much more fragile and exposed…”

Universities are full of intelligent people from diverse backgrounds, who are constantly asking the big questions and striving to do better despite the challenges. With that in mind, what opportunities and innovations lie ahead for international student engagement and global partnerships?

Margaret: “…Crises such as these prompt us to re-examine the foundations upon which universities are built and to consider our fundamental purpose in serving society. While the means by which we deliver certain activities will shift and evolve and the needs of our societies become more complex, there are certain missions that will undoubtedly endure…”

Feridun: “…we also need to re-evaluate how reliant we are on international student tuition in order to support our everyday operations and growth. Given the unreliability of geopolitical pressures, changes in government and unseen global challenges, it is unsustainable for a modern university to put so much financial reliance on one particular revenue source…”

Mark: “…Although universities have been developing social media strategies and electronic communications directly for overseas students for some time, the level and sophistication of this approach has greatly increased under lockdown. We have seen much more of a coordinated effort to reach out…”

In Global Conversation, the Odgers Berndtson Global Education Practice's series, is designed to share experiences, advice and thoughts from senior education leaders around the globe, engaging with a new key topic every edition, comparing different countries and their insights at the forefront of a changing sector.