Decreased mobility as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has the higher education sector facing unprecedented challenge. The future of this sector remains uncertain as campuses close and semesters get postponed.
However, it is essential that universities and colleges continue to build their international community as it will be vital in their recovery.
“As a sector I think we are pushing at an open door when we call for a more international, knowledge-based economy and society,” said Professor Steve Smith at the International Higher Education Forum 2020 held in London last March 25.
Finances would be the area biggest hit in the higher education sector. Not only is the world facing a severe and unique recession, but education institutions will be struggling to recover as they lose their biggest source of revenue.
In the United States, international students contributed almost $41 billion of the national economy last year, making it the fifth largest US service export. Similarly, the United Kingdom owes £20 billion of its economy to international students. In Canada, foreign students contribute an estimated CA$21 billion.
The past few years saw major cuts in government funding, so tuition fees have become one of the primary lifelines of institutions. International students pay at least twice the amount paid by domestic students, with some countries charging almost four times the fees. The revenue is used to pay utilities, maintenance costs, and other campus facilities as well as funding for new programs and courses.
Taking away this income source can significantly dent overall budget, even potentially resulting in some colleges completely shutting down.
Workforce and Skills Supply
Many of these developed economies are facing unique skills and labor shortages, in part because of their aging youth population. This will likely worsen as the majority of the workforce will soon retire.
At least half of international students wish to stay in their host country to work. International students then play a critical role in filling in job vacancies in essential sectors of the economy.
Even at times of pandemic and public health emergencies, various sectors rely on the assistance brought by foreign students. For instance, Australia reports of international nursing and aged care students providing their support. Their Department of Health acknowledged the value of their skills and said that these students “would help fill critical staff shortages emerging in the sector.”
Internationalization also helps produce valuable academic research. The knowledge and skills contributed by these students can further boost the credibility and reputation of the institutions of their choice. International students could be the key to unlocking key scientific discoveries or breakthroughs in the humanities.
The ongoing pandemic has highlighted the need for continued research that benefits society, and foreign students can greatly contribute to these efforts. Academic research benefits not only higher education institutions, but also economies in dire need of recovery from this pandemic. Findings from new studies can also influence and shape policies, forcing action from future governments.
Once the dust has settled, universities and colleges need to double their efforts to attract more international students to help cushion the impact of the raging pandemic.