InternationalizationMarket research and Market Intelligence

OP ED: Pandemic impact

Stripped back to the point of unrecognizability, or adding layers of complexity to an already intricate field?

It is evident is that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused dislocations in traditional thinking about the entire field of international education. Careful, evidence-based analysis of these alternative perspectives is imperative in order to understand the contours of the new landscape and what they might mean for providers in multiple destinations and the students they serve.

As ever, our perspective is informed by our work and conversations with senior practitioners in the field. What we’re hearing suggests that there is a stronger need for understanding than ever before of the dynamic situation in the countries of destination and origin that make up the muddled map of global education. Typically, what you see today depends on where you sit. The landscape looks very different from Australia for instance – largely closed to international students for the past academic year – or the UK – initially criticized for its pandemic response but currently leading one of the most successful vaccination programs globally and contemplating large-scale return to in-person learning for the Autumn term 2021. But how different will things be, in what timescale, and what are the implications?

What is unrecognizable of course to a field predicated on global student mobility is an absence of travel. We are currently geography-neutral and that requires an acceleration of digital as a means to reach prospective students; a dramatically different usage of online teaching methodologies; and an agenda where we examine sustainability issues in terms of the impact of all that previous mobility on the planet’s increasingly fragile ecosystem and our responsibility for it. However, the undercurrents of these issues were beginning to surface before the pandemic. What has happened is that the pandemic has required an engagement with and fluency in areas of globalization that had previously taken a back seat to the predominance of tuition-derived student mobility. For example, digital and online technologies have seen an almost universal adoption globally, and COIL (collaborative online international learning) initiatives which had previously supplemented study/learning abroad, are now replacing it where travel is impossible. To what extent does the pandemic and these new initiatives stall or propel the growing education abroad agenda for many education systems?

There are added layers of complexity in the growing regionalization of global student mobility. Where students had intended to study in the traditional host destinations pre-COVID, a wider range of regional destinations are now being considered, and with it, the subject of the place of China as a leading host destination needs consideration. Alongside regionalization, an analysis of transnational education and the future of this form of delivery is needed. Recruitment channels that had underpinned the astonishing increase in the number of globally mobile students in the past decade – agents and pathway provisions – are changing rapidly with the growing prominence of aggregators, the emergence of large agencies into ed-tech, listing and event platforms, and the consolidation of the private pathway industry.

So, the idea of a radically altered field, as well as a more complex one facilitates a framework for analysis. Essentially, both perspectives appear to have merit, so a framework that interrogates the interplay of these perspectives is essential.

What is important to note is that we are not in a position yet to see clearly the shape of things to come.  2021 and 2022 are likely to see the realization of what has been pent-up demand for student mobility, albeit with a different shape. Student surveys during 2020 and into 2021 have all shown that students have a strong preference for an in-person experience and that is unlikely to change in the short or even medium term but there are other factors to student decision-making. Truly different modalities of mobility are not yet completely clear, but in the longer term there are a range of emergent factors that will merit examination, all of which will shape and scale differently in different locations. There are significant issues around affordability as the full economic impact of the pandemic surfaces in key markets. Institutions will need to meet the confidence gap around the value of qualifications (vis the employability agenda) against the cost of the in-person experience, with a closer examination of return on investment. The uneven nature of the recovery in both destination and source countries will dictate shifts in the competitive landscape.

In all, for 2022 and beyond, it’s all about understanding the phasing and currents of the world’s much-anticipated recovery.  Time to sharpen those market intelligence routines!

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