E8MD99 A mixed group of overseas students in traditional gowns and mortar boards taking selfie on graduation day Aberystwyth University
Doubts are growing over how many overseas students will enrol on traditional face-to-face courses this September © Alamy

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

The writer is chairman of Tes Global and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School

You don’t know what you got until it’s gone. With international students bundled back home to continue classes online, the English-speaking countries hitherto dominant in global higher education are realising what they risk losing.

Politicians have persistently failed to speak up for international students during wider debates about immigration. They are now waking up to the critical role overseas students play in underpinning institutions central to the performance of all knowledge economies.

In the decade before coronavirus struck, the number of international students worldwide had more than doubled to 5m with that number expected to rise to more than 8m by 2025.

Now, doubts are growing over how many overseas students will enrol on traditional face-to-face courses this September. Governments and universities in North America, the UK and Australia say they are preparing for a drop in international students of potentially 50 per cent to 75 per cent.

This major reversal for one of the great boom businesses of the globalised economy will have calamitous consequences for university finances. It will force governments to choose between costly bailouts and disorderly failures that could throw tens of thousands of students on to the streets and into jobs markets already in turmoil.

The challenge is acute in the UK, where 460,000 international students represent 20 per cent of library ticket-holders, massively cross-subsidise research in Russell Group institutions and contribute £20bn to service exports. Regulators will need to design a stabilisation fund to prevent the disorderly collapse of scores of vulnerable English universities. Access to it should be subject to strict conditions, including the closure of poor-quality courses.

Yet for all the anxiety over the coming year, pessimism about the future for international education is overblown — even if it may no longer hew to the current westernised, Anglo-Saxon and mainly English-speaking paradigm.

The push factors remain strong. In key developing countries, such as China and India which account for a quarter of overseas students, the shortage of places at prestigious domestic institutions that match social aspirations and academic needs is acute. In Bangladesh, with its largely young population of 170m, and Sri Lanka, there are an estimated five students competing for every available university place.

Driven by growth in middle classes in Asia and Africa, the demand for higher education is set to increase from 160m students in 2015 to more than 414m by 2030, according to Unesco. To meet that, the world would have to build four universities, each serving 80,000 students, every week, every year.

Only last month, a QS survey of 11,000 prospective international students found 85 per cent still open to applying — although a significant proportion intended to defer for a year.

In fact, the disruption from coronavirus could accelerate a new phase of growth. Traditionally, an international education has been a privilege for those who have the money, or know how to obtain financial aid. In future, it will probably reach a wider pool of talent, through two accelerating trends.

First, the disruption to travel and incomes from the pandemic will boost the relative appeal of opportunities for intraregional study. Many Asian students increasingly contemplate safer and more affordable options closer to home, in countries such as Malaysia. Developing countries will increasingly seek overseas students themselves, with the global north losing market share to the global south.

Second, the crisis will accelerate online, distance-learning and blended courses that combine online educational materials and classroom interaction. These will interest middle-income families unconvinced by the return on investment from traditional multiyear programmes of overseas study.

The best institutions will turn the crisis into an opportunity. In time, demand for traditional programmes of overseas study will return for the elites who’ve always accessed it. The academic kudos and status benefits of full-on immersive experiences in other countries will continue to draw many students.

But the most exciting growth in international education will come from institutions that use technology to increase access for talented students from income groups for whom it has previously been out of reach. An international education market that is more accessible, less elitist and less carbon-intensive may be one good thing to come out of the corona crunch.

Get alerts on Coronavirus pandemic when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article