Home and away – the consequences of Covid-19

For Louise Nicol, the impacts of Covid-19 on transnational education and international recruitment could be huge.

Covid-19 reality is likely to see higher education changing more radically in six months than it has in the past fifty years.

But as the problems widen and deepen it is likely that the immediate solution of delivering courses online might bring longer-term restructuring and sensibilities. There is also the possibility that enlightened regimes might lead to wholly unintended consequences.

There are plenty of nuances but two scenarios offer plenty of food for thought:

  • Will online delivery and vigorous development of trans-national education (TNE) prove so successful that they cannibalise lucrative overseas markets to the point where students no longer want or need to study overseas?
  • Will a global economic recession lead to increases in the number of international students staying on for post-study work and how might this affect national economies?

Students stay at home to study

Blended, online, and remote learning will be vastly improved and will become a realistic option for increasing numbers of students. This should lead to significantly wider participation in global higher education. That’s good news in one way, but the downside is that they will be able to do this in their own homes causing major disruption for universities that are still stuck in a high-overhead campus model. It’s a higher education version of the “clicks and mortar” Armageddon that has afflicted the high-street as more and more retail has moved online.

The impact of students staying at home has been modelled by institutions in Australia and New Zealand and shows the potential level of disruption. The first study, in which 8,700 students deferred for a semester, would reduce the gross state product by about A$1.4 billion and affect 10,700 full-time jobs. A more extreme scenario, where 15,000 international students put off their degrees for an entire year, would cost A$2.2 billion and affect 15,000 jobs.

In New Zealand, Victoria University of Wellington has reportedly imposed a hiring freeze and is considering staff lay-offs amid an estimated NZ$12 million (£5.9 million) hit from the loss of Chinese students’ tuition fees. In the UK the stakes are also high. Early 2020 saw a £4.7bn deal as Blackstone bought IQ Student Accommodation, which represented “a bet on the UK’s rapidly growing student housing market, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced last year its aim to grow the number of international students in the country by a third.”

It’s also possible that the universities which have invested in transnational education might find this is a moment where they are in the best place to build both enrolments and reputation overseas. If coronavirus has a lasting impact on global mobility, it may be that international students are willing to take the first one or two years of study in a local campus with the promise of progression at a later stage. In this respect the UK is particularly well-placed to take advantage with its lead in global TNE.

Students extend their time away

A greater concern in the post-Covid-19 jobs market is that when graduating international students seek employment they may find the economic situation in their home country so difficult that they choose to stay away. Over 90 per cent of international students currently go home after study, and they are vital to the economic vibrancy and growth of Asian countries which have increasingly fuelled demand in the global economy. A significant change in this behaviour would have significant impacts in their home countries but also on the countries where they study.

The Covid-19 outbreak is denting the prospects of this year’s record 8.7 million-strong Chinese university graduating class. Many students are stuck at home just as the corporate recruitment season begins in earnest. After the outbreak, the proportion of companies seeking more than 500 new employees fell by more than half to just 2.2 per cent, according to a report from Zhaopin, a recruitment website.

In the UK a benevolent new post-study work regime has been praised as being likely to enhance the flow of international students. Australia has also increased the opportunity for post-study work while already having a history of international students doing low-quality jobs. If the numbers staying to find work suddenly moves from 5-10 per cent to 25-30 per cent or even higher there are serious implications.

In economies still recovering from the impact of Covid-19 and – for the UK – the aftermath of brexit it is highly likely that there will be fewer job opportunities. Western economies will struggle to cater for the domestic graduating student population, never mind a growing number of international students that wish to remain in their country of study. The potential for conflict is high and the political consequences obvious.

It would be easy to say that when the UK government reinstated post-study work visas the country was largely supportive and that national opinion polls have indicated a widespread view that international students are a good thing. But we know from past experience that opinion can shift quickly and that a Conservative government might find it hard to dismiss popular sentiment newly empowered by an ending of links with the European Union. It’s only eight years since post-study work was ended by a Conservative government in the face of rising unemployment.

Following the data is the answer

It has never been more important for universities and Government to have prompt access to employment data as they try to respond during unprecedented times. Old style surveys are too slow, too prone to low return rates and suggest a country stuck in the dark ages. The speed of the coronavirus outbreak has shown us that global problems require global solutions which use the best tracking technologies available.

Institutions need to start to collect international outcomes data and benchmark that data against that of their peers as close as possible to real time. This must be done methodically and include tracking the careers of their international graduates whether in the country of study or when they go home. In the short term it will provide insights that can influence policy decisions but in the longer term it will enable universities to plan their support for student employability more effectively.

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