Impact of COVID-19 on Overseas Education
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Six months into the pandemic, the world is still grappling with the toll the novel coronavirus is having on people’s health and wellbeing. According to latest reports, there are now more than 13 million COVID-positive cases and the virus has led to the death of more than 500,000 people worldwide. Although health systems are more prepared now than they were at the outset of the outbreak, authorities face a tough juggling act. They must balance the economic imperative to ‘open up’ against medical advice to continue with some form of social restraint.
This conundrum impacts international education as well. By its very nature, overseas education has until now required students to travel abroad to pursue a higher education degree overseas. On the business front, steady growth in international student numbers has paved the way for the global tertiary education market to emerge as a solid industry. According to a recent report, the international higher education market was valued at $65.4 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach (by pre-pandemic calculations) $117.95 billion by 2027.
It goes without saying that these impressive numbers for projected growth will have to be adjusted in the light of the pandemic. COVID-19 is impacting student aspirations due to health concerns that are tied up with exposure to large social networks and the dangers and risks associated with international travel. Educational institutions too are wary of returning to pre-COVID operations given the high risk associated with interaction between large numbers of people in indoor settings.
However, it is not all bleak and hopeless. I think that the overnight shift that COVID-19 occasioned, with nearly every educational institution moving online, will chart a new path for the future of international education. Let us take a closer look to see how this will happen.
New Priorities for Learning
In the immediate term, there is no doubt that thousands of prospective international students will do a U-turn on their former plans to apply abroad. This could be driven by shifts in international policy that place restrictions on foreign students or concerns about the contagiousness of COVID-19. But students who had been preparing to study abroad will revisit their plans.
However, this does not necessarily mean that they will give up studying in international institutions. Students who have aspired to get an overseas education for the experience of living and studying abroad will opt for courses that while being mainly online will include a small but compulsory offline component. And others will seek opportunities to pursue a college degree in international institutes that offer blended learning and also consider enrolling in international universities that set up branches closer to home. Although the latter will take some time to take shape, I do see this as a trend that will pick up momentum in the coming years.
A Shift in Learning Destinations
A closely related second development I see shaping up naturally as a result of the pandemic is a gradual shift in learning destinations. Already, we have been seeing this take place even before the pandemic with students finding it more useful to choose locations closer home. Now, as an outcome of COVID-19, this trend will only get stronger. This will mean that popular courses in some of the worst affected countries, including those in Spain and Italy, will suffer in the short run. But other courses that have been typically overlooked closer home will garner more interest.
Emergence of New Learning Paradigms
A third development I foresee is the emergence of more inclusive and collaborative models of higher learning. What do I mean by this? Let me explain. As countries get pushed to make online learning modules more mainstream, they will be able to bridge the gap in access to quality education. Young students who were earlier unable to afford college degrees both because of prohibitive costs and the requirement to attend in person will find it easier to enrol for higher education courses—those available locally and those available virtually from anywhere across the globe.
Lessons from these students’ experience will enrich existing educational institutions by expanding their expertise. And universities from developing and developed nations will gain from exchanging ideas and resources on how to build on this expanded and more inclusive community of international learners.
All crises are hard to live through and COVID-19 is no exception. However, extraordinary times also provide opportunities to relook at old ways of doing things and I believe this is equally applicable to education. Tertiary education has typically been considered the privilege of the few and associated with privilege and leisure. The pandemic may prove to be a turning point in how higher learning is structured, provided and perceived. But it will take a concerted effort for the education sector to come together, leverage its strengths and reshape higher learning as an opportunity that is truly open to all.