When borders were closed, universities around the world faced an obvious weakness in their business models: their reliance on international students to drive revenue. Three years later, the sector has shown no signs of reducing that dependence. Instead, it has doubled.
The demand for China’s reopening and bringing anyone holding degrees at foreign universities back into the classroom comes amid an intensifying race among English-speaking countries to attract international students.
In Australia, where education is the fourth biggest export, more than 28,000 Chinese returned to universities last month, with the country’s other 35,000 visa holders still eligible. This is on top of a total of 746,000 international enrollments last year, with top institutions expected to return to pre-Covid levels by early 2025. The UK, US and Canada have also seen a rapid snapback.
“We’ve seen a V-shaped recovery across the board,” said John Chew, global head of insights and analytics at Navitas, an Australia-based education services provider. He said that with declining government funding of higher education in advanced economies, “universities need to fill that shortfall” and competition to attract foreign students is intensifying.
The pandemic affected the multibillion dollar international student market globally.
New enrollments in the US fell by 46% in 2020/21, according to Julie Baer, a research specialist at the New York-based Institute of International Education, as many overseas students postponed or put their educational plans on hold. In Australia, unions say staff will take a pay cut of up to 15% in 2020, while government figures show the higher education workforce is set to fall by 8.3% from 2020 to 2021.
To avoid such pitfalls, universities are trying to future-proof their business models.
Australia is seeking to reduce its dependence on China by announcing a new education partnership with India this month that will make it easier to recognize degrees earned in each other’s countries. Deakin University will set up a branch campus in India – a common strategy that mitigates the impact of pandemic-induced border closures.
According to the Cross-Border Education Research Team, American and British universities have been most active in opening overseas campuses, accounting for about a third of such arrangements worldwide.
For example, New York University also has degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Josh Taylor, its associate vice chancellor for global programs and mobility services, said international enrollment “remained very strong” during the pandemic under a program that allowed students to study at NYU campuses or centers in their home countries.
The snapback has been quicker than many anticipated, with many major US universities already seeing new international student enrollments return to pre-Covid levels. Meanwhile, the UK has met its 2030 target of hosting 600,000 international students a decade ahead of schedule, according to Griff Ryan, a policy advisor for global mobility at Universities UK International.
In Australia, which saw an estimated influx of 143,000 international students last month, there is palpable relief that the rigors of online learning are over.
“You can learn from each other better with face-to-face learning,” said Joy Xu, a postgraduate law student from Beijing at the University of Technology Sydney. “We all know that we get the best results and outcomes from face-to-face learning.”
The economic benefits are also clear.
At the peak of 2019, when around 5.5 million students worldwide traveled abroad to study, education exports totaled $26.9 billion for Australia, $30.8 billion for the UK and $44 billion for the US in the 2018/19 academic year. Navitas predicts that by 2030, 9.5 million students will be traveling abroad for study.
However, economists in Australia worry that the recent inflows risk a downside.
“Inflation is a hot topic at the moment,” said Madeline Dunk, an economist at ANZ Bank. “All these students are going to spend money on cafes and restaurants and cinemas in Australia, and that will lead to inflation in general services.”
It also exacerbates the rental crisis in cities such as Sydney, where prices are skyrocketing.
“Some of my friends are actually paying around A$600 ($400) a week for a studio, which is insane,” said Inuli Subasinghe, a Sri Lankan student completing her science degree at the University of New South Wales . “And these are just for normal, really basic apartments.”
Meanwhile, rising enrollments are putting pressure on a tight higher education workforce, which has yet to recover from pandemic-induced job cuts.
At the University of Sydney, workers locked in wage talks have been on strike for several days since the start of 2022. The most recent occurred on 9 March when hundreds of employees formed picket lines at the main entrances to the university.
“Universities need to invest in resource staff so they can do their jobs properly,” said Damien Cahill, general secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union. “Often those who are charged with teaching large groups of international students are not well supported to do so.”
According to Chew at Navitas, striking a balance between generating revenue and the overall student experience while protecting academic standards will be critical as the industry continues to recover from the pandemic.
“The big risk is that it feels like education becomes a commodity rather than a truly once in a lifetime investment,” he said.