COVID-19 and Higher Education: Can Asian Countries Benefit at the Cost of the West?

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There have been numerous debates with regard to the impact of  COVID-19 on the global economy – specifically in the context of trade and travel. There are varying estimates concerning the degree to which the global economy will shrink as a consequence of the pandemic. One of the areas likely to be impacted severely, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, is higher education. The discussion pertaining to higher education so far has been on how there will be a shift from class room to online teaching. It is true that for the time being, the online mode of teaching has proved to be handy for many universities and colleges in a number of countries including in India to complete the remaining part of the academic year. There are a number of other important dimensions of higher education in a post-coronavirus world which need to be examined.

Contribution of International students to the economies of the U.S., UK, Australia and Canada 

One important point which needs to be looked at is — how countries like the U.S., UK, Canada and Australia which are popular destinations for international students to pursue higher education adapt to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19. International students from across the world especially countries like China and India, while pursuing their higher education at the U.S., UK, Australia and Canada pay exorbitant fees compared to local students. Tuition fees along with other expenditures by international students account for substantial amounts which cannot be ignored.

This point is strongly reiterated by figures. In 2018-2019, tuition fees and living expenses of international students in the U.S. contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy and this amount matches up to many American exports. According to estimates, international students support 458,290 jobs. For every seven international students roughly three jobs are created or supported in areas like higher education, accommodation, transportation and retail. In the UK, the second most popular destination for international students, it is estimated that the total contribution of international students to the country’s economy is around £7 billion. Some estimates place the overall benefits to the UK economy closer to £20 billion. The Australian economy earns nearly $39 billion annually from international students. For the year 2018, international education supported an estimated 240,000 jobs which was equal to Australia’s third largest export. Canada which is the third most popular destination for higher education, international students in 2018 contributed $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP and supported an estimated 170,000 jobs. Apart from contributing by way of tuition fees, many of these students stay back as professionals and also turn into successful entrepreneurs. 

Chinese and Indians are a significant percentage of the international student population. For the year 2018-2019 there were 369,548 Chinese and 202,014 Indian students in the U.S. In the UK the total number of international students was estimated at 460,000, while there were 143,025 Chinese and 26,685 Indian students. For 2019, this number is supposed to have gone up to well over 30,000. In Australia out of the 700,000 international students, China’s contribution was 28 percent, while India’s was 15 percent. In Canada, Indian students accounted for 34 percent, while Chinese students accounted for 22 percent of the international student community. Total international students in 2019 were estimated at well over 600000 in Canada.

Changes in visa regulations and U.S. policies

If one were to look at the instances of China and India, the large number of students opting to study overseas make a significant contribution toward not just the economies of the countries where they are pursuing education but also in bolstering the bilateral relationship.

In recent years, there has been a change in the U.S. attitude towards Chinese students. In 2018, the Trump Administration reduced the visa duration of students enrolled in courses like robotics, aviation and hi-tech manufacturing from five years to one year. A number of U.S. policymakers welcomed this move arguing that Chinese students often steal sensitive information. It would be pertinent to point out that while visa regulations targeting Chinese students have been in the news, other international students too have been impacted by certain visa restrictions. Trump’s insular policies on immigration have meant that the U.S. is not as attractive for students from other countries like India. With the clamor for suspension of H1-B visas, Washington is likely to lose out further.

It would also be important to point out that in spite of souring of ties and imposition of restrictions, Chinese students still continue to account for a large percentage of the international student community in the U.S., UK, Australia and Canada.

Post-COVID-19 attitude toward Chinese students

We may see some changes post the COVID-19 crisis not just because of restrictions in travel but souring of ties. In the UK for instance, the intelligence community has warned the Boris Johnson government not to provide access to Chinese students to sensitive research at universities and other research centers.

COVID-19 and its impact 

It would be pertinent to point out that there will be a dip in the number of international students not only from China but also from other countries due to travel restrictions, uncertainties and apprehensions among students. The economic slowdown in Asia and Africa will also result in a drop in students opting for higher education at least in the short run.

According to a survey conducted by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), nearly half of the respondents stated that coronavirus has impacted their plans to pursue overseas education in the coming year. Out of these respondents, 47 percent have decided to defer their entry, 13 percent have decided to study in another country, and 8 percent have changed their plans with regard to pursuing their education overseas.

Why Canada may do better than the U.S., UK and Australia

UK has estimated that there will be a drop over 200,000 students in 2020 as a result of international students deferring or cancelling their plans altogether. This would cause a loss of an estimated £2.5 billion to UK universities. The UK economy may lose up to £6 billion. The U.S. and Australia are also likely to face a major setback in the coming academic year. Canada may face some problems in the short run but is likely to remain an attractive destination for international students because it has been open to skilled immigrants even in recent years, unlike the U.S., UK and Australia. It has been keen to retain international students – especially those enrolled in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Management).

The higher education sector of Western countries will thus need to adapt to the changes which have taken place as a result of COVID-19 and also innovate in order to remain attractive for international students.

Potential for Asian countries 

While the coronavirus pandemic may pose challenges for the UK and make it tougher for Chinese students, there is a scope for Asian countries like India, South Korea and Taiwan  to not just retain their outstanding students who may change their plans to pursue higher education in Western countries and Australia, but also to attract more international students through online learning. In recent years, China has been ahead of other Asian countries in attracting international students and it is likely to remain a popular destination especially for students from countries with which Beijing shares strong political links.

One of the major advantages which countries like Taiwan, South Korea and India could have in the long run, is the possibility of opening up travel earlier than Western countries. Apart from this, students from many countries may be hesitant to pursue higher education in China. Even in terms of online education, the aforementioned countries can provide quality education at more reasonable prices than Western institutions. Countries like Taiwan and India should also seek to strengthen cooperation in the sphere of education and look at more joint degrees. India is one of the priority areas of the current Taiwan government’s “Southbound Policy”.

Education is likely to witness numerous changes. First, education needs to shift from a classroom mode to an online mode at least in the short run. Second, countries like the U.S., UK, Australia and Canada will suffer a major setback at least in the short run. Third, there are major opportunities for top class higher education institutions in Asian countries other than China to emerge as popular destinations for students from developing countries. Finally, Asian countries need not to compete with each other; they can also cooperate, and the online mode of teaching provides a golden opportunity to explore the potential of more joint degrees.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. 

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