Time to redirect internationalisation efforts where they are most needed

Covid-19 requires a rethink of internationalisation. Ben Webster asks whether online refugee education could offer a chance to renew UK HE’s social mission.

Much like the call to rethink the economy in light of COVID-19, the pandemic also offers the opportunity for UK universities to rethink their models of internationalisation, aligning their need to innovate during challenging times with the education ambitions of marginalised learners around the world.

The UK has one of the most international student cohorts in the world, with 19.6 per cent of the total student population being made of international students, second only in total number to the US. Covid-19 has prompted many of these students to defer or cancel places, with institutions bracing for anywhere from 50-100 per cent reduction in international student income for the coming year. This represents a significant black hole, as international students contribute £4.8 billion in fees – 14 per cent of total university income.

In addition to a lack of international students, universities have had to flip their model of delivery to continue teaching during the UK’s lockdown. Many institutions have had to make a quick transition to online learning, and most are planning to retain an online element for the coming academic year.

These two challenges are fundamentally reshaping the business of higher education. Universities need to rethink revenue and course delivery fast. But this crisis also offers an opportunity for universities to realign internationalisation and the social mission of higher education.

Reaching international students outside of the UK will be fundamental to this. And their newly designed remote delivery models allow universities to reach international students without having them travel to the UK, either directly or in partnership with local education institutions.

Furthermore, as former universities and science minister Jo Johnson recently suggested, students in China, India, and elsewhere seek domestic or regional places, local institutions are likely to face higher demand. As quality of teaching is the top priority for international students choosing a university, UK universities can seek collaborations on the basis of complementary strategic advantage. Institutions in key UK markets can act as a gateway to students, whilst UK institutions can provide the marker of teaching quality that international students have been seeking.

Expansion through collaboration

Reaching students across the globe raises significant challenges in around contextualisation of programmes and access to technology. But this model of international collaboration is a well-trodden path for many organisations working on higher education access for refugees.

There are many examples of best practice including Southern New Hampshire University’s GEM programme across the Middle East and Africa, the University of Geneva’s work in Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya, and the University of East London’s collaboration with Mosaik Education in Jordan and Lebanon. All of these programmes have succeeded in expanding international access to higher education by adapting programmes to be relevant in local markets, navigating logistical barriers, and identifying new sources revenue – three fundamental factors international directors of UK universities will be contemplating currently.

The necessity to internationalise through remote or local collaborations also comes at a time when there are huge numbers of marginalised young people seeking higher education: UNHCR aims to increase the proportion of young refugees accessing university from 3 per cent to 15 per cent by 2030, potentially an additional 440,000 students. UK universities have the potential to play an instrumental role in helping reach this target and meeting its social mission by offering opportunities to those who are most marginalised.

But it need not only be a purely altruistic exercise. The UNHCR target also aligns with a developing area of funding from institutions such as the Open Society University Network, the UK Aid-funded SPHEIR programme and the World Bank’s strategy. This represents both an opportunity to fulfil higher education’s social mission, and to reach more students.

Universities face unprecedented challenges in rethinking models of income generation and course delivery. The solutions will require radical solutions in learning technology and international collaboration. Yet the current crisis represents an opportunity for UK universities. By connecting with actors like Mosaik and others working in crisis zones, universities can pivot internationalisation strategies whilst fulfilling the ambitions of some of the most marginalised students in the world.

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