Has the pandemic changed the direction of international student flows forever? Throughout 2021, many college presidents and provosts began to breathe a sigh of relief as the green shoots of renewed international student mobility seemed to finally take hold after the pandemic shut down much of international travel.
Early data for the 2021-22 school year in some of the key Northern Hemisphere recruiting countries show a sharp rebound in recruitment, with one of the toughest first datasets, a survey, released in November states. However, while universities in the US, Canada and the UK have dared to hope to emerge from the storm, those in countries where borders have been slower to open, such as Australia, face a much more troubling wait.
While the Australian government has decided to ease travel restrictions just in time for the new school year, many students may have already redirected their applications elsewhere. And the arrival of the Omicron variant in late November threatened to further stall this reopening effort, reminding us that travel restrictions could still be re-imposed within a few hours.
So, what is the current state of the situation in Australia and other major countries that host international students? Could some of the tectonic shifts we’ve seen over the last couple of years in student flows now solidify into something that will cause more permanent damage to student enrolment in the Southern Hemisphere? And what other factors will be important for students choosing a place of study if and when Covid finally recedes and travel fully resumes?
Let’s take a look at the latest data on mobility, including student visa issuance, industry surveys, and individual university enrolment data, to get an idea of where cross-border learning is and where it could go as long as Covid continues to cast its shadow over the sector.
According to statistics from student visa holders studying at Australian institutions, the total number of international students studying at some point between January 2021 and September 2021 is close to 560,000.
That figure, including those outside higher education, was down 17% compared to the same period in 2020. This may not be much different from experience with other English language systems, but when you start from scratch, Australia’s real problems become clear beneath the surface of the data.
The United States has released the first most detailed data from any country in the Northern Hemisphere on international student enrolment for the new academic year. The 2021 IIE Instant Enrolment Survey, which recruited about 60% of the country’s international students, shows that there has been a significant increase in new enrolments since 2020 – 46 percent decline from 2019 to 2020.
It’s quite possible that any recovery will not necessarily be equally felt at every place, with enrolments at 20% of respondents to the gap, compared with last year; 10 per cent of institutions reported no change.
The longer impact of this pandemic could be major expansion in new forms of international education.