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Lessons for international higher education post COVID-19

In the space of a few weeks our global interconnected societies have transformed into life in lockdown and with restricted mobility. Every private company, public organisation or educational institution has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Globally, economies are collapsing and massive unemployment and recession will follow. For the American economist and futurologist Jeremy Rifkin the current crisis is a signal that we must enter a new era of resilience to reinvent society and accelerate economic models that are more respectful of the environment.

We trust our governments to take the right measures to contain the pandemic and protect our health; at the same time, questions are emerging about the extent of the measures in relation to the needs of society to fight the virus. Could COVID-19 lead to new forms of control and surveillance in society?

This is where higher education across the globe can play a tremendous role, with institutions and individual researchers joining forces to share knowledge and expertise for policy-making, advancing new economic models and addressing social issues.

International education post-COVID

Every form of international education is currently affected by the crisis and will be for some time, from study abroad schemes to staff exchanges and internships to transnational collaborative programmes and capacity-building projects in developing countries. Universities have been closed and-or are delivering all education online. Every international conference in higher education has been cancelled or turned into a series of webinars.

As governments are starting to reopen society and restart business, universities will also gradually reopen their campuses. Nevertheless, new modes of social distancing will continue to apply for quite some time, affecting on-campus learning in physical spaces, from the (international) classroom to libraries and on-campus student networking places.

In education, the shift to online was made at very short notice. It has accelerated new forms of pedagogy and tremendous initiatives from individual academics and institutions have emerged. Learning by doing or by experiential learning is usually considered as a very effective way to teach students.

However, at the same time there is no doubt that a lot of online education is currently delivered in its most basic forms, replicating more traditional forms of learning on-campus. There has simply been no time to rethink the pedagogy, to work with professional instructional designers on purpose-built teaching material for online delivery and to train lecturers to deliver online.

While some institutions were already working on new approaches for online or blended delivery, for others this was totally new. In 2018 the Observatory on Borderless Education reported that online education accounted for only 15% of a sample educational market share, that online was very uneven and hard to track.

It will be interesting to analyse ‘post crisis’ what remains of all the initiatives taken for online education, how these get embedded in institutions’ policies and the portfolio of high quality international online or blended learning offerings that come out of this period.

There is a great opportunity to develop new forms of personalised education (that are in much demand) and to innovate in student assessment (including online) beyond the more traditional assessment currently still predominant, in particular for large student cohorts.

‘Pre crisis’ there was already a growing demand from the labour market at a global level for more flexible and blended forms of lifelong learning beyond initial education in order to address the need to upskill and reskill workers for the digital economy.

Mature adult learners are more interested in micro-credentials which allow them to acquire specific knowledge and skills. The demand for personalised courses or learning paths and customised learning experiences is also increasing significantly. Perhaps COVID-19 may also be a business opportunity for universities to develop new models which to date are not provided on a broad scale.

In the short term, international student mobility will decrease. International visiting professors could teach their courses online, continuing to provide some ‘internationalisation at home’. Once travel bans are lifted, in the medium term, student mobility will resume as it has so much become the DNA of contemporary higher education.

Recent crises in the last few years have shown that international travel usually picks up fairly quickly, even if none of the recent crises has been on the current scale. However, there will be a significant impact and mobility patterns will continue to shift as they have already been doing for quite some time independent of the crisis.

There is a great opportunity to reinvent new models of experiential learning and powerful campus experiences for students. Universities have a tremendous competitive advantage compared to alternative online and other training providers.

Online education has many benefits. However, learners also search for networking on campus, exchanges, shaping of new ideas, project work (including with private sector companies and in the community) and working in groups. This can be done online but nothing will replace the social and physical interactions that we all need as social beings.

In business schools, MBA students pay significant tuition fees for the professional networks they develop and connections with professionals.

Financial sustainability

Institutional strategies that are too dependent on international students for financial income (often on Chinese students) will no longer be sustainable and those institutions unable to make the shift to different models will not survive. This is also particularly true for business schools.

China will continue to send students, but it is also aiming to bring half a million international students into the country in the short term, a target which is backed up by a strong political and economic strategy.

COVID-19 will, of course, also affect this strategy. According to a recent Studyportals survey, 40% of international students are considering changing their study abroad plans due to the current crisis.

In 2017, the Chairman of the Chartered Association of Business Schools in the United Kingdom was already questioning whether business schools were fit for the future, saying the offering by some 16,000 business schools worldwide was not sustainable and that many would probably disappear in the future.

In an Eduvantis survey carried out among United States business schools in the last week of March 2020, 93% of the 46 responding business school deans said they believed that the current crisis would accelerate the closure of business schools. While two-thirds believe that the rate of closures will accelerate by up to 10%, more than one quarter believe that the rate will increase by more than 10%.

One of the reasons for financial losses could be the need to put certain classes online as face-to-face teaching may not be possible for a certain period of time, or at least not for all students due to travel restrictions. More than 300 students admitted to top MBA programmes responded to a Poets&Quants survey at the end of March, out of which only 17% said they would attend the MBA as planned if classes had to start online. Some 43% would expect a price decrease and others would defer their studies.

Online provision is clearly less attractive to students and 96% of prospective MBA students who took part in the survey say that missing out on the full on-campus experience, such as face-to-face classes, participating in co-curricular activities and building a network with peers and relationships with faculty, was a major concern.

Andrew Ainslie, dean of the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, urges candidates to see dropping application numbers as an opportunity to gain admission to far better ranked business schools than they could have done before the crisis. This shows that higher ranked business schools will probably do better out of this crisis than lower ranked schools, which will need to carry the main burden of decreasing student numbers, including accelerated closures.

Overall, geopolitical challenges and turbulence in some parts of the world, as well as the more restrictive immigration policies and border controls that governments have introduced or will adopt, will have a more lasting effect on international mobility in higher education.

Lessons and opportunities

In the last few weeks higher education institutions have shown their significant capacity to adapt very quickly to the crisis, with lots of flexibility. But how many had anticipated this type of crisis, had put sophisticated risk management in place and had worked on scenario planning for it? Beyond the crisis, how can these ‘quick fixes’ be turned into more sustainable approaches?

There are certainly lessons to be learnt to improve institutional resilience in higher education. Universities also have a great opportunity to gain new legitimacy in society by demonstrating that they are a great source of knowledge and expertise for society.

Nadine Burquel is an international higher education expert. Anja Busch is an international accreditations officer at EM Strasbourg Business School, University of Strasbourg, France.

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