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What the international student exodus really means for education

Much has been said of the significant impact COVID-19 has had on international student recruitment, and the reliance of universities in particular on foreign students. But what happens next for the tertiary education sector?

With border closures and a lack of financial support for foreign students once the pandemic hit, an exodus of foreign students out of Australia was inevitable.

The resulting plethora of staff cuts, course cuts, research funding shortfalls and pleas for government assistance have been significant. Such a reliance on offshore students to prop up Australia’s education system should never have been in the first place.

Yet the situation is what it is. And an educated guess at what international student education will look like in the next one to two years is both illuminating and worth the effort.

My view is that we will see for four key developments:

  1. We will see a gradual return to the international in-country classroom (sometimes referred to as a hybrid model)

I have held the opinion that this will continue well into 2021. Marginson (2020) takes this view even further, arguing that “it might be sensible for institutions to plan for a mix of face-to-face and online education, much as it is now, until sometime in 2022”.[1]

Whatever the actual timeline, a full return to on-campus activity still has a way to go. The mixed mode (hybrid) has significant traction and longevity, regardless of how long the pandemic runs and our borders remain closed to foreign nationals.

  1. Online delivery will remain a feature of international education (possibly for years)

My own institution recently (T3, 2020) conducted a student survey gauging the enthusiasm of both international undergraduate and postgraduate students for a return to on-campus, face-to-face learning/teaching. The results speak volumes.

The aggregated interest in face-to-face classes was just 10 per cent – some nine out of 10 students preferred to stay online. The same survey in T2, 2020 indicated a 72 per cent interest in staying online.

Our findings aren’t a one-off, either. A recent UK study[2] suggested a more mooted but still majority 55 per cent of international students are interested in online options in-country. This is not our own experience – but as a sector, we will all need to watch this space carefully.

  1. We will witness a steady drop in onshore enrolments (though not as savage as was first predicted) followed by a steady growth from mid-2021

Nerlich (2020) notes that “in the single month of July 2019, there were 96,842 commencements, while in July 2020 there were 53,037 (a 45 per cent decline, month on month). This is certainly a substantial decline, though many were predicting worse”.[3]

I believe that enrolments will rebound slowly, possibly from mid-2021. However, it will take a few years for levels to realign with 2019 numbers. A recent Chinese study[4] predicts a ‘downward trend could last beyond 2021-22’.

Australia’s domestic enrolments also stand to be tested by the federal government’s proposed shake-up of course funding.[5]

  1. New alliances and partnerships will emerge that accommodate a mix of online and face-to-face combinations, making geography and time zones less important

Inevitably, there will be increased numbers of students studying online offshore with the intention of coming to Australia to complete awards.

At the postgraduate level, for example, students all over the world will commence an MBA online, with the intention of travelling to Australia post COVID-19 to complete their studies, either in a hybrid or completely face-to-face mode.

The European Commission is working towards a system that will “enable learners to move easily between education systems in different countries and help create a culture of lifelong learning”.[6] Australia would be wise to take up the challenge and make this a feasible and approved approach, certainly for the next few years in particular.

Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is Deputy Vice Chancellor at Group Colleges Australia.


[1] https://thepienews.com/news/marginson-australia-could-take-up-to-a-decade-to-return-to-2019-market-size/
[2]https://thepienews.com/news/uk-face-to-face-teaching-vital-for-intl-students/
[3] https://www.ieaa.org.au/blog/2020-by-the-numbers
[4] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/chinese-interest-studying-abroad-plummets-amid-pandemic
[5] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-06/minority-support-for-higher-education-bill/12734980
[6] https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20201003010059260

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