Studying abroad is an amazing, life-changing experience. I should know. As a young American, I studied in Chile and Argentina. I so loved studying and living abroad that I decided to get my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. In the end, I spent most of my tertiary education as an international student and, if I had it to do all over again, I’d make the same choices.
In light of COVID19, universities in the West have seen a dramatic decline in international students. For example, many universities in the UK are preparing for an 80-100 percent reduction in international students in 2020. This loss is devastating not only for students missing out on the opportunity to study abroad, but also for university finances. Given that a standard undergraduate degree takes three to four years to complete, we are going to see, without an effective vaccine, a gradual, albeit catastrophic, decline in the number of international students as the years unfold.
But let’s be honest. This crisis could be seen from miles away and was avoidable. For at least a decade (maybe longer), almost every academic I know watched universities become increasingly financially dependent on high fee-paying international students, especially those from China. A few years ago, I remember talking to a friend who worked at a top British university. She told me that 100% of their Master’s in Human Resource Management cohort was from mainland China! These students flew to Britain to enroll in an English language program, only to find that they would spend most of their time speaking Chinese with their classmates. I suspect my student abroad experiences would not have been so great had I been surrounded by Americans.
For many years, we watched a slow-motion financial train wreck in the making. Every year, we remarked openly that this dependence on Chinese students could not continue forever. It was only a matter of time before the well dried up. But instead of preparing for the worst, we just hoped against hope that it would never happen. Well, it did.
“For many years, we watched a slow-motion financial train wreck in the making. Every year, we remarked openly that this dependence on Chinese students could not continue forever. It was only a matter of time before the well dried up.“
Even with an effective vaccine in place, the damage done to the Chinese economy will likely mean that far fewer families will have the money to send their children to be educated abroad.
So, what are our options? I think it would be a mistake to focus our recruitment efforts entirely on the domestic market. Of course, we need strong and stable domestic numbers, but, as noted above, the golden opportunity to study abroad is one from which no one should be deprived. We desperately need students with more “international-mindedness,” if not only for the sake of world peace, which is based on mutual understanding and respect across cultures.
What we need to do is what we really should have been doing over the last few decades: diversifying our international student cohorts beyond the Chinese market. I see huge opportunities for exciting partnerships with Latin American, African, South and East Asian universities. I also see huge opportunities for Western universities to open up their own branch campuses abroad, as evidenced by RMIT’s highly successful entry into Vietnam.
We cannot allow this pandemic to result in a re-nationalization of higher ed. To deepen our international links, we need to review our offerings to ensure that we are providing good value for money. Everyone benefits from a truly globalized university sector.
Prof. Andrew R. Timming
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