International Student Mobility and the Impact of the Pandemic

The crisis is having a huge impact on the numbers of students choosing to study abroad. What will the future bring?

COVID-19 and International Student Mobility

THE CROSS-BORDER movement of students is a defining feature of the higher education landscape. Over the last two decades, annual growth rates in outward student mobility have averaged 10 percent. Nearly 5 million students go abroad each year for the purpose of tertiary education, and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has predicted that number will rise to 8 million by 2025. But how might this trend be affected by COVID-19?

The current pandemic represents a disruption to international student mobility (ISM) that is more swift and immediate than either the SARS outbreak of 2003 or the global financial crisis of 2007–08. For instance, in the spring of 2020, Australia saw its international student numbers dramatically drop and its critical supply of Chinese students all but disappear. Its first-semester loss of an estimated 150,000 Chinese students will be followed by second-semester declines, leading to across-the-board cost reductions and requests for emergency funding.

Around the world, degree programs have moved online and international exchange programs and summer schools have been suspended or postponed. As international students continue to face lockdowns, travel bans, and campus closures, degree and credit mobility plans remain under threat, with restrictions forecast to persist for months to come. Several popular study destinations—including New Zealand, Australia, and the United States—remain closed to international entrants, and it is unlikely that schools in Europe and North America will resume full campus operations at the beginning of the academic year.

In Europe, institutions are anticipating significant shortfalls in fall-start programs that rely heavily upon international registrations. Schools are gearing up for a mix of online delivery and socially distanced on-campus classes. Universities UK, the body that represents British higher education, has issued a sober warning: In the coming academic year, universities could see a £7 billion (approximately US$8.57 billion) drop in income, representing approximately one-third of all tuition fees from international students.

Indeed, many studies suggest the coronavirus will seriously impede ISM for the remainder of 2020. The European Association for International Education collected 805 survey responses from individuals working in higher education across Europe and found that nearly three-quarters expect that the pandemic’s effect on inbound student mobility will be significant or very significant. A report by World Education Services reveals that 72 percent of international education professionals in North America expect a decline in the undergraduate market for international students. A British Council Report on Chinese student intentions shows that 22 percent of the 8,481 students who have applied to study in the U.K. this fall say they are likely or very likely to cancel their plans; 39 percent are undecided.

Finally, a large-scale Quacquarelli Symonds survey reveals that one in two respondents feel the coronavirus has impacted their plans to study abroad. Forty-seven percent have decided to defer their entry until next year, 13 percent plan to enroll at a school in a different country, and 8 percent say they will abandon their plans altogether.

What is clear is that students may not be prevented from studying abroad next year simply because of logistical and regulatory barriers such as lockdowns and travel bans. Even if such restrictions ease quickly, many face psychological reasons for staying at home, including worries about the state of their health and well-being abroad. Many are also looking at administrative barriers linked to delays in language testing and difficulties with visits. They anticipate problems with the practicalities and costs of international travel, and they expect fewer work opportunities post-graduation because of a predicted global recession.

Taking a Breath

While the short-term picture for ISM is discouraging, the long-term picture is healthier. Most of the studies that report ISM disruptions in 2020 also note that, despite the virus, people retain a long-term interest in studying abroad.

Some industry observers point to the temporary impact of earlier crises such as 9/11, MERS, SARS, and the 2007–08 recession, although recovery times across the sector were not always short. In addition, longitudinal data show that the global demand for study abroad opportunities has increased with remarkable consistency over the past 30 years. While growth in outbound mobility flattened somewhat in the last decade, ISM has continued to climb under the combined effect of push (institutions encouraging outward mobility) and pull (those encouraging inward mobility) factors.

A 2017 report from the OECD explains the rise in ISM by pointing out that knowledge-based economies require higher-level skills and qualifications. Domestic sectors in developing economies have not always been able to meet this requirement on demand. The report goes on to say that “rising wealth in emerging economies has further prompted the children in a growing middle class to look for educational opportunities abroad. At the same time, factors such as economic (e.g., costs of international flights), technological (e.g., the spread of the Internet and social media to maintain contacts across borders) and cultural (e.g., use of English as a common working and teaching language) have contributed to making international mobility substantially more affordable.”

ISM remains strong for two additional reasons. First, a record number of young people are entering the peak higher education age brackets, and they are the individuals who are most interested in mobility.

Second, institutions are developing compatibility and comparability across national education systems, integrating credit systems, and adopting national action plans designed to stimulate mobility. Indeed, a defining quality of the present industry is that leading players are competing for mobile students in a semi-globalized market in which these students have become an important source of talent and revenue. The competition is aggressive, and any shock to the market—such as the coronavirus—is keenly felt.

Altered States?

While the long-term prospects for ISM remain good, the COVID-19 crisis may contribute to lasting changes in the way students consume international education. Before the pandemic, the growth of ISM had already begun to slow, mostly because of two trends in teaching and learning: the spike in online options and the expansion of transnational education, in which foreign qualifications and providers are brought to local settings.

Some commentators are envisioning a new type of international higher education. For instance, in an April commentary in University World News, Brent White and Jenny J. Lee observe that the pandemic shutdown has exposed a current reality: “We already live in a world in which mobility is not necessary, and sometimes perhaps not even desirable, for meaningful cross-border exchange or an international education. … These events as a consequence of COVID-19 have hastened the dawn of a new post-mobility world, or one in which physical travel is unnecessary for the creation and transmission of knowledge across borders.”

Other researchers make the case that virtual mobility is a viable alternative to physical mobility. As discussed by Mariet Vriens, Ilse Op de Beeck, Wim Van Petegem, and Mart Achten in a 2010 piece, individuals in virtual learning environments can engage in cross-border collaborations with people from different locations and cultures, thereby enhancing intercultural understanding and the exchange of knowledge.

While some of these commentators champion the idea of a “post-mobility” world, there’s reason to question this perspective. Yes, physical mobility in international education leads to a carbon footprint that has to be reduced or offset, and this is a serious concern. Yes, the vast potential of international learning remains untapped if most of the world’s students have barriers to their personal mobility. And, yes, private and collaborative online learning can provide learning gains at relatively low cost.

All of this is plainly correct, but a post-mobility model will be difficult to achieve as long as the majority of international students have a skeptical view of online learning and prefer to study abroad. Online learning also is hampered by poor connectivity in many countries and limits to international websites—challenges that have hindered online learning even during the current crisis.

Meanwhile, a post-mobility world drastically reduces students’ opportunities for gaining international experience. Unless we envision a post-mobility world for business, it is still critical that business students develop global mindsets and competence by spending time outside of their home countries.

Unmatched Benefits

In fact, study abroad experiences help students develop a number of skills essential to business success, including problem solving and autonomous decision making. Research by Uwe Brandenburg and co-authors indicates that extended periods of training or study abroad also help people develop transversal skills such as self-efficacy and a strengthened ability to manage change and difference. Students agree: When they’re surveyed after returning from international experiences, they consistently emphasize that these experiences help them acquire soft skills and develop greater independence.

In addition, exposure to foreign cultures helps people develop multicultural skills, language skills, and global mindsets. According to a study by Vittoria Jacobone and Giuseppe Moro, mobility programs “not only increase human capital in individuals but also their cosmopolitan orientation.” In “Got Global Competency?” William Hunter traces the relationship between study abroad and “global competence,” or the capacity to “understand the cultural norms and expectations of others” in order to “interact, communicate and work effectively outside of one’s environment.” And in his 1991 book Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, Jack Mezirow explores the idea that the real benefit of international experiences is that students face many disorienting dilemmas once they’re outside the comfort zones of their home countries, and this leads to transformational learning.

While academic mobility does not guarantee that students will develop these competencies, it typically does require them to operate outside of their familiar spaces and engage with alternative cultures. The broad conclusion is that international experiences can contribute to our graduates’ success by equipping them to work across cultures in global settings.

ISM may have other benefits related to learning. One U.K.-focused study contends that outward mobility leads to personal development, which results in higher grades, enhanced degree outcomes, and better career prospects.

These tangible benefits of physical mobility accrue whether a single individual pursues a course of study abroad or a group of universities develops inter-institutional exchanges and degree programs. While there is less research on intra-institutional mobility—such as rotational degree programs at schools with multiple locations—it seems likely that such programs would lead to similar results.

Can online courses and international collaborations provide the same advantages? Possibly, but the body of evidence about the benefits of virtual mobility is less convincing than the data about in-person study abroad. And while the European Commission has made it a strategic priority to promote virtual mobility, to date Europe’s institutions of higher learning have only made modest attempts to adopt it. In fact, the evidence suggests that, even in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, many young people will continue to prefer studying abroad in person.

No doubt the crisis will accelerate the development of online education, but this does not mean that demand for face-to-face higher education will decline significantly on a long-term basis. As Simon Marginson observes in a recent piece in Times Higher Education, “The organic classroom has personal and status benefits that cannot be replaced… [and] if the next academic year begins on an online basis, platforms will need to be better quality than the temporary adaptations now being put in place.”

It seems likely that the crisis will accelerate the development of online education alongside and in complement to in-person education once it is resumed. After turning to online teaching as an emergency measure, institutions will see the benefit of this hybrid model. While some schools already have strong digital brands, others are newer to virtual learning, so future online offerings will vary depending on each school’s experience, market, and positioning.

The Opportunity Ahead

The pandemic has greatly disrupted higher education, and it will take some time before traditional mobility flows settle. Even after restrictions are lifted, the impact of a pending global recession surely will depress supply even more. Most analysts forecast a drop in globally mobile students. The questions are: How steep will that drop be, and how long will the aftereffects last?

The answers are particularly hard to predict because the global response to the virus has been a patchwork of national realities and scenarios. Countries that flattened the curve quickly might re-open sooner than others; countries that suffered some reputational damage based on their responses might find foreign nationals less eager to visit. For a time, at least, student choices will be informed by such considerations.

In the future, ISM itself will take many different forms, ranging from the dominant stand-alone model of the individual consumer pursuing education abroad to the more complex model of inter-institutional and intra-institutional mobility. In this landscape, virtual mobility should emerge as a means by which those unable to move physically across borders can enjoy some of the qualities and benefits of international education.

What we should be targeting is not a post-mobility world, but a responsible mobility world. In that future, traditional physical mobility is available to young people at a lower cost and with a clear purpose—and it co-exists with virtual mobility to make international experiences even more accessible. That future also addresses some of the concerns about international student mobility, including aspects such as environmental harm and matters of personal safety and security.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has been an unwelcome event with destructive effects on both people and economics, it has provided us with a unique opportunity. It has allowed us to imagine how we might transform international student education—if not the whole of higher education.


Simon MercadoSimon Mercado is dean of ESCP Business School London.

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