International Student Enrolment At UK Universities Set to Decline


Western universities will have to ‘hunt’ for scarce overseas students, warns a leading internationalisation scholar, as global student mobility is predicted to suffer a ‘massive hit’ for at least 5 years in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Simon Marginson, Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford, has said that while East Asia will likely emerge as a regional hub in the aftermath of the public health emergency, developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will suffer from the ‘temporary shrinkage of the global middle class‘ amid the coronavirus-induced recession. This will in turn have a significant knock-on effect on international student flows to Western universities.

Speaking online at the International Higher Education Forum for Universities UK, Professor Marginson said:

The overall position for international education is that it’s going to take a massive hit. I think that we’re looking at at least a five-year recovery period in terms of the global numbers of people who move between countries for education.

He went on to say that international education will become ‘a buyer’s market,‘ in which universities in Europe and North America will be ‘hunting for scarce international students for some years to come.‘ Furthermore, health security will most definitely form a major part of the decision-making process for students and their families on whether they should seek higher education abroad, moving forward.

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Professor Marginson has also predicted that East Asia would recover quicker from the coronavirus, both medically and in terms of its ability to provide face-to-face teaching compared to other highly-developed regions of the world. As such, most international students travelling abroad immediately following the pandemic will likely come from China, Japan, and South Korea, while domestic universities in these countries will also have to expand to accommodate the increased provision of regional higher education. He commented on this theory:

What we’re now going to see is a shift of part of the [student]traffic that was going into North America, western Europe, the UK and Australia, going into other East Asian countries. That effect is likely to be permanent.

If countries want to return to a major role in international education quicker than they otherwise would, then assistance from government in the form of ramping up the industry and subsidising some student movement will become very important

In his remarks, Professor Marginson also brought up the shift to online delivery of education among universities in the Northern hemisphere that will likely continue into the next academic year, commenting that face-to-face lectures are ‘realistically‘ not likely to return immediately in September. However, while online education will most likely not completely replace face-to-face teaching in the long run in general, he added:

…for some institutions only online provision is going to be viable for cost reasons in the longer term […] online learning needs to be seen as a substantially different product, a different educational experience…and as such it will need a separate pricing structure.

Shearer West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, also attended the online higher education forum. He said that while the overseas campus model (in which UK universities maintain sites in foreign countries i.e. University of Southampton’s Malaysia Campus) had ‘begun to look a bit rusty and old-fashioned‘ over the past few years in the wake of the growth of global higher education, Nottingham’s sites abroad have been ‘an asset‘ during the current crisis. West went on to describe how his University’s closure of its Ningbo, China campus in January in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, and the move to online delivery of lecture content there, helped them greatly when setting up the necessary framework in Nottingham when the UK lockdown was announced in March. There was also some collaboration between hospitals in Ningbo and Nottingham to ‘share their learnings.

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Professor West added:

We may be turning inward to the new dystopian dark ages but I think global fluency and global connections are going to be even more important in the future, especially in the arena of international research collaboration.

Global higher education as it exists now is in danger of fast obsolescence but, in my view, we need to be imaginative in how we reinvent that for that post-Covid generation.

Meanwhile, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, Sir Steve Smith, commented on the implications of the pandemic for the UK university sector:

[We are] looking over the edge into a very significant financial abyss [and]are uncertain where the bottom will be. Universities will need to undertake a massive and coordinated effort to ensure that, when normality returns, we can recover quickly.

[The higher education sector] will play a vital role in helping our towns and cities recover. The ways in which the sector has responded to this current crisis will further embed universities into their communities, showing that they are truly anchor institutions in their regions

International students, who pay their tuition fees at much higher rates to their universities than domestic students, make a vital contribution to the UK higher education sector and form a vital source of income for these institutions. It is unclear how far the shortage of these students will go on to negatively impact universities in the post-COVID-19 era, but current predictions don’t bode well unless new ways are found to attract significant numbers of overseas students in the years to come.


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