Pandemic to redistribute international student flows

29 June 2020 4 min. read
More news on

Universities in the UK and US look set to lose ground among international students, thanks to their countries’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Anglosphere nations which had better records containing the virus are likely to benefit from this, with a new report suggesting Canada, New Zealand and Australia are in line for a windfall of foreign enrolments.

Having enjoyed a boom in funding thanks to the marketisation of higher education, a huge number of universities across England and Wales have been placed under major financial stress by the Covid-19 lock-down. Mass redundancies and attacks on staff pay and conditions are reportedly on the cards at many institutions, as they prepare for a funding shortfall of £2.5 billion in the next academic year.

According to one study, performed by consultant London Economics for the University and College Union (UCU), the lion’s share of this drop will come from a massive reduction in the number of international students – who pay inflated tuition fees in the UK – arriving in the system. An estimated 47% drop in international student numbers will cost the university sector £1.5 billion – and coupled with a fall in domestic intake, this could jeopardise 60,000 jobs across the UK.

Similarly, Ireland's seven universities are currently facing a major funding crisis, as factors such as the collapse of international student fee income, rental of on-campus accommodation and commercial revenues will cost the universities €374 million in the 2020 and 2021 financial years. The Irish Universities Association predicts that the loss in fee income from international students alone will be €181 million.

Pandemic to redistribute international student flows

Not every country in the higher education Anglosphere  looks set to be hit hard however; as with any financial crisis, there are also beneficiaries. An analysis by Big Four professional services firm EY has predicted that New Zealand will increase its share of globally mobile students by 1% – around 10,000 additional enrolments – thanks to its rapid suppression of the coronavirus. Better still, Australia, which has also largely contained the epidemic, will increase its share by 2%.

Synthesising findings from surveys of more than 40,000 prospective international students by groups including IDP Connect and the British Council, EY’s study painted a generally upbeat picture of international student flows, in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic’s duration. New international student enrolments will remain at 1.1 million or more for the next three years, even if coronavirus’ effects persist half a decade.

As reported by Times Higher Education, EY’s report also stated that while only about 330,000 internationals are studying in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and UK in 2020 – a fall from 1.09 million in 2019 – this is largely due to deferrals by students unable to travel to their universities from home amid the lock-down. As recent survey results suggest that only around 5% of such students said they would give up their international studies, 2021 will see up to 1.85 million people starting degrees in foreign countries, as deferred students resume their academic activity.

Meanwhile, as new students look to find a country which suits their academic needs, as well as a relatively secure environment, the report says that the big winner will be Canada. The country is expected to capture an extra 6% share of the global international education market, largely at the expense of the US, which is perceived to have handled the pandemic very poorly. At the same time, Australia looks set to gain 2%, and New Zealand 1%, as Chinese students who EY says are more “cautious about their health” consider alternatives to the UK.

While Australia, New Zealand and Canada look set to eat into the international student market share of the UK and US – whose respective efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 have been roundly criticised at home and abroad – the UK may still prove resilient thanks to its attempts to forge trade links with India. According to EY, interest from Indian students in April was higher than a year earlier – notwithstanding Covid-19 – because of the British government’s liberalisation of post-study work rules.