Charles Dickens had a fundamental insight about the possibility of living in the proverbial best of times and the worst of times all at the same time. This dawned on us in the middle of November when discussing the decline in new international student enrollment for Fall 20201Julie Baer and Mirka Martel, Fall 2020 International Student Fall Snapshot Survey (New York: Institute of International Education, 2020). with colleagues from the major international exchange and scholarship organizations in Europe and North America.2Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), The Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI), Campus France, Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), Uni-Italia, NUFFIC, British Council, Institute of International Education (IIE). IIE has convened the group every four to six weeks since March to compare how Covid-19 was affecting our work and to share effective approaches. It was clear that the pandemic was going to depress student mobility numbers practically everywhere. All of us had noted declines, ranging from 20–40 percent in Fall enrollment of international students, and some countries had even indicated that their public health authorities had determined there would be no international students admitted for Fall in-person study at their universities.“While IIE’s Fall Snapshot survey revealed a 43 percent decrease in new international student enrollment, it also showed that despite the difficulties associated with travel, there were over 20,000 new international students in the United States, and at least twice that number had been granted deferral to the next academic year.”
Then a colleague from France spoke up: “We don’t know where these new international students are coming from and how they are getting here. But they are definitely here, and we are definitely surprised.” The same turned out to be true for all of our European counterparts, just as it was for the United States. Indeed, while IIE’s Fall Snapshot survey revealed a 43 percent decrease in new international student enrollment, it also showed that despite the difficulties associated with travel, there were over 20,000 new international students in the United States, and at least twice that number had been granted deferral to the next academic year.3Baer and Martel, Fall 2020 International Student Fall Snapshot Survey. This is in addition to the over 700,000 international students who were already in the United States when the pandemic was declared and decided to stay. While a proportion of these new international students may have transferred from US high schools or other institutions, it is clear that the pandemic did not cause international student mobility to halt completely.
We also saw evidence of continuity in exchange programs. IIE is honored to administer the Fulbright Program on behalf of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State. Throughout the pandemic, we have worked closely with the State Department to offer options for Fulbright grantees until in-person travel resumes, and we have all learned a lot about doing things virtually. But the mobility involved in the Bureau’s exchange programs never actually stopped. Some 388 new Fulbright students and scholars from 84 countries arrived at their US host institutions by the end of September, and in January 2021 will be joined by 749 more.
In short, the past six months have turned out to be better for most academic exchange programs than we had reason to hope in what was shaping up by the end of last summer to be a Dickensian “winter of despair.”“Most forecasts today are not optimistic and suggest that international student mobility, which had been growing at a rate of 5–8 percent annually from 2 million in 1998 to 5.3 million in 2017, will slow significantly.”
The DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst or German Academic Exchange Service) has an ongoing project to inventory and track the impact of Covid-19 on international education globally, by region and selected countries, and has compiled a very comprehensive list of expert forecasts that will provide benchmarks against which to compare the reality 12 months from now.4DAAD, “COVID-19 Impact on Higher Education: Studies and Forecasts,” last modified August 26, 2020. Most forecasts today are not optimistic and suggest that international student mobility, which had been growing at a rate of 5–8 percent annually from 2 million in 1998 to 5.3 million in 2017,5Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD, 2019). will slow significantly.6Mirka Martel, COVID-19 Effects on U.S. Higher Education Campuses: From Emergency Response to Planning for Future Student Mobility (New York, NY: Institute of International Education, 2020). And some experts see the aftermath of the pandemic (coupled to other changes already underway regarding higher education not necessitating or requiring travel) as likely to lead to as much as a “five-year recovery period in terms of the global numbers of people who move between countries for education.”7Simon Marginson, “Covid-19 and the Market Model of Higher Education: Something Has to Give, and It Won’t Be the Pandemic,” blog, Centre for Global Higher Education, July 20, 2020.
When the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020–2021 ends, higher education everywhere is likely to be different. The pandemic is teaching us a lot, for example, about what needs to be taught in-person and what can be taught effectively online and asynchronously. It has caused faculty members to revamp courses and students to focus more on what they are learning—or not—from them. We think that international student mobility, which never did stop, will actually grow.
The state of international education
Covid-19 is the 12th pandemic in IIE’s history. After each, international mobility actually surged. In preparing a timeline for IIE’s centennial publication,8Institute of International Education, 100 Years of IIE: A Century of Hope, A Future of Promise (Chelsea, MI: Sheridan Books, 2019). our review of all of IIE’s annual reports since 1920 showed that pandemics of the past 100 years were hardly mentioned.9These reports are online and accessible at the IEE website. We also have 100 years of data on student flows into the United States and over 70 years of Open Doors® international educational exchange data. Since 1948, when IIE first printed a report on international mobility flows, the number of international students has increased steadily. During World War II student mobility continued, as more students than ever before from South America headed north. The total number of international students in the United States declined for a brief period after 9/11, yet even then, mobility rebounded and doubled in the following decade.
Indeed, the dynamics that fuel international student mobility are remarkably constant. For three-quarters of the twentieth century and for all of the present one so far, more young persons between the ages of 18–24 appear to qualify and seek access to higher education faster than their home countries can supply it. There are still very few countries that have enough existing institutions of higher education to accommodate the surges in enrollments due to demographic pressures elsewhere or one to two years of pent-up demand for international education caused by delays due to wars or pandemics.10Rebecca Schendel and Tristan McCowan, “Expanding Higher Education Systems in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: The Challenges of Equity and Quality,” Higher Education 72, 407–411 (2016).
There are an estimated 20,000 institutions of higher education worldwide, according to the World Higher Education Database (WHED). The United States surveys almost 3,000 institutions that host international students as part of the Open Doors project.11Mirka Martel et al., Open Doors 2019 Report on International Educational Exchange (New York: Institute of International Education, 2019). The WHED reports 1,060 and 809 higher education institutions in China and India, respectively; the next five countries that are top destinations for international students12United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France and Russia, according to Project Atlas® 2020. have a total of just over 1,500 universities.13Ibid. For some of these countries, international student enrollment is over 20 percent of total higher education enrollment, whereas for the United States this proportion is 6 percent and for China less than 2 percent.14IIE, “2019 Project Atlas Infographics.” In short, there are not a whole lot of countries whose higher education systems actually have surplus seats and can accommodate international students. Yet the desire and demand for higher education sustains international education. Of the ten million Chinese students who take the national college entrance examination, less than half are admitted; for India, over 500,000 students take an entrance exam for one of the Institutes of Technology, of which less than 10,000 get admitted. In Nigeria, which has seen the number of its students going abroad double in the last decade, only one in every four students gain admission to Nigerian universities. From 2010–2015, over 10 million students applied for domestic study, when only approximately 750,000 spaces are available each year.15Chris Parr, “2 Million Applicants for 750k Places. Nigeria’s Bid to Tackle its Capacity Issue,” PIE News, June 29, 2018.
As the top destination country, there is already tremendous growth in virtual attendance at Education USA information sessions and organized college fairs. Prepandemic attendance figures at such events usually numbered in the hundreds and were considered quite successful. For the past several months, and across all regions, we are recording attendance in the thousands. In October, the Fulbright Student Program received its highest number of applications in 20 years. Interest in the scholarship opportunities offered by all of the major international exchange organizations this past spring and fall also remains very high. And, based on interviews we conducted over this past summer with senior international officers and recent reports, colleges and universities throughout the United States are anticipating the return of international students as soon as vaccines are widely available. In the meantime, top university officials and local community leaders developed a renewed appreciation for their international students and just how much revenue and jobs (in the 2019–2020 academic year, some $44 billion and almost 416,000 jobs) their presence provides, resources that will be essential elements to economic recovery in many places and sectors.
The future of international education
When it is safe again to travel, higher education officials should prepare for a future where international students will not only have interest in resuming their studies abroad, but also have more destinations and choices than at any time in history.“By the end of last year, more than a dozen countries had declared policy goals to double international enrollments by 2025.”
This may have particular consequences for US higher education. There is already an unprecedented global trend toward seeking international students as part of national education economic growth strategies and foreign policy. By the end of last year, more than a dozen countries had declared policy goals to double international enrollments by 2025. And of the 100 top-ranked world universities, nearly two-thirds were no longer based in the United States; a decade ago only 47 of the top 100 were non-US institutions. So, the international student of the post–Covid-19 pandemic world will have an unprecedented range of choices about not only how to study—e.g., hybrid or in-person—but where. Postpandemic, being closer to home and with world-class universities a few hours away rather than on another continent may be increasingly appealing.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also underscored that the mobility on which international education depends is central to what universities do best and for the benefit of humankind: promoting basic research, encouraging scientific experimentation and innovation, and forming future leaders. Among the challenges ahead will likely be new diseases which universities can help to conquer. As social scientists, we would also like to think that our institutions of higher education are ready to combat the persistence of viral-like political “-isms” that have evaded eradication for decades and which attack educational institutions just as opportunistically as governments. Today’s variants of isolationism, communism, fascism, Nazism, anti-Semitism, religious fundamentalism, and racism all seem to have thrived just before and then strengthened during the Covid-19 pandemic. The good news is that we already have a cure; namely, education. The problem is that we still may not have enough doses of it.
Banner photo: Sacramento State University/Flickr.