A segment which has suffered miserably at the altar of the pandemic is international education as millions of students have put on hold their plans for studying abroad; and foreign institutions who practically exist on international tuition fees are struggling to survive. But with the steady decline in COVID-19 cases, things are gradually looking up for this sector.

On an annual basis around 10 lakh Indian students (as per UNESCO data collated for 2019) travel overseas for higher education … and one can just visualise the monetary and cultural impact that these students leave on the foreign institutions and countries that host them!

Things were pretty hunky-dory right till the first quarter of 2020 but all this changed with the entry of the coronavirus which threw the entire world into a state of social and economic disorder with the trail of infection and deaths that it lay. In fact the International Labour Organization Monitor states that COVID-19 is “the worst global crisis since the Second World War.”

Impact of COVID-19 on International Students

The global pandemic had an adverse impact on not only Indian students studying at foreign institutions but also on students planning to study abroad in 2020.While students pursuing their undergraduate, postgraduate or research studies at foreign institutions faced concerns with regards to delivery mode of the course as classroom studies were suspended and virtual education became a mandate; then again summer and winter internships were discontinued leaving students losing out on practical hands-on experience; some countries even put in riders for international students to leave their shores; and lastly with the escalating infections students were anxious about the well-being of their families back in India and vice-versa.

On the other hand students planning to join an academic term in 2020 at a foreign institution were in a quandary with issues like – freezing of international flights; some study destinations struggling with the pandemic; the plummeting financial condition of their families owing to the series of lockdowns introduced to curb the spread of the virus; lack of face-to-face coaching and counselling support; standardised tests like IELTS, SAT and ACT being scrapped; fears regarding the security of their loved ones; and a general lack of certainty. An informal study reveals that the pandemic has impacted more than 50 per cent of study abroad aspirants thereby tremendously affecting the movement of students.

But every crisis brings with it a learning opportunity and COVID-19 too has helped re-shape many sectors besides of course pushing researchers and scientists to come up with vaccines and medicines for the same in stupendously short time-spans!

The vaccines for combatting the wily virus acted as a shot of hope for students aspiring to study abroad, their families and foreign institutions too. This combined with safety measures like – hybrid models of study; mandatory arrival quarantines; adhering to COVID-19 protocol (masking-up, social distancing and hand sanitization); et al – has strengthened the resolve of aspiring students and host institutions to strive to create a ‘new normal’ in the international education segment.

Benefits of Studying Abroad

An informal survey claims that only 5.4 per cent aspirants wish to put breaks on their study abroad dream in view of COVID-19. Some of the pluses which international degrees leverage are –

  • Foreign institution degrees propel one’s career prospects to the sky! Albeit currently the global crisis may adversely impact job potential and emigration pathways; but when things stabilize employers would prefer to on-board someone with an international qualification rather than a local one
  • A study abroad program offers a vista of learning opportunities to students in terms of curriculum and an innovative way of learning
  • Graduating from a foreign institution transforms a student’s perspective, lifestyle and life as it offers a blend of – academic learning, sense of independence, travel, making new friends, gaining new insights etc.
  • Myriad course options to choose from which provides students with the golden opportunity to expand their horizons besides equipping them with the requisite skills for the new age economy

Broadens the student’s perspective making them more comfortable with a cultural diaspora; this in turn lends them with a capacity to deal with modern and complex problems of the real world and take more inclusive and transparent decisions

Foreign Universities and the ‘New Normal’

Institutions across all study abroad destinations are doing their best to ascertain a safe experience for international students and their faculty; so, besides making international travel approved-vaccination mandatory, moving to virtual/online classes (or opting for hybrid teaching models), introducing socially distanced classrooms, and adhering to COVID-19 protocol, some of the other steps that they have adopted to attract more international students and meet their evolving needs include –

Dropping the requirement of standardised tests like GRE or GMAT

  • Introducing fee-reduction, application fee waivers, financial support (scholarships and bursaries) to the international student community
  • Accepting scanned copies of degree certificates realizing that producing original copies could be a herculean challenge in the on-going times
  • Restructuring course curricula and exploring ways to offer courses in a blended format
  • Adopting pre-recorded lectures, video calls, online assignments, online and open book exams
  • Strengthening resources to provide an online learning environment that is on par with in-class learning
  • Offering virtual campus tours to students and their parents showcasing – the infrastructure and facilities, the admission requirements, the different academic programmes, COVID-19 safety protocols in place, etc.
  • Counsel for Students Planning to Pursue their Study Abroad Aspirations in the ‘New Normal’
  • Students who intend to study abroad are fortunately being given priority by the Indian government for the vaccination program.

Here’s sharing some pointers for students to successfully address the challenges brought on by COVID-19 –

Adhere to your study abroad plan by continuing with the application process and preparing for the standardised tests as this is the best way out in a scenario where there’s no clarity with regards to when the pandemic is going to end.  Luckily multiple foreign institutions have extended their application window for international students, to provide them with sufficient time to decide on the feasibility of the study abroad option. Many international institutions have also thoughtfully offered the option of attending classes online in the beginning and later on campus

  • Opt for institutions which are better-equipped to respond to the COVID-19. Albeit a large majority of institutions have adopted stringent measures to combat the virus response, yet these may differ from country to country. So vet these out before making a well-informed choice
  • With a huge majority of foreign institutions sensitised towards the financial lull that the virus has rung-in across all households many based in USA, UK, Switzerland, Australia et al have magnanimously reduced their tuition fee … check these out ASAP
  • Maximize the remote proctoring solution offered by exam conducting bodies like the College Board, GMAC etc. which facilitates appearing for GMAT, SAT, ACT et al seated in the comfortable safety of your house
  • Students who are financially stressed or who find virtual learning to be a challenge or who are pandemic stressed are strongly advised to put their study-abroad plans on hold for a year

On a conclusive note living with the wily virus for 16+ months now has brought home the fact that it is here to stay for a while and it is time now to learn to live with it…albeit with all precautions in place. Moreover, in a ‘survival of the fittest’ world where change is the universal law of nature the best course of action is to quickly adjust to the ‘new normal’ and take a bold and well-strategized step towards fulfilling your study abroad dream!

Popular study destinations

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • New Zealand
  • (The) United Kingdom
  • (The) United States of America

Parameters to be vetted by prospective international students

  • Changes to the application process and deadline
  • Availability of seats in the desired course at the institution
  • Changes in the dates of any standardised tests
  • Changes to the course structure
  • Measures the university has implemented to curb the on-campus spread of the coronavirus
  • Changes to English language test requirements
  • Option for deferring application

Important learnings from the pandemic for international academic institutions

  • E-learning has a bright future provided attention is given to – authentic assessment and equitable student access to the Internet
  • Enhanced sensitivity to the economic hardships being faced by students leading to escalation in financial aid, scholarships and flexible payments
  • Awareness about new program majors that can evolve from the COVID-19 crisis
  • Exploring blended learning in partnership with regional universities
  • Redesigning of academia to work in democratic collaboration with others, within and beyond the campus
  • Building deeper relationships with the local communities (most impacted by the pandemic)
  • Engaging the full range of university resources, including its academic and institutional resources
  • Need for being more open, transparent, responsive and accountable
  • Investing in digital literacy and infrastructure
  • Rejuvenating life-long learning
  • Strengthening links between formal and non-formal education
  • Need for leveraging on flexible delivery methods, digital technologies and modernized curricula alongside ascertaining sustained support for teachers and communities
  • Creating inclusive, resilient, quality education systems
  • Encashing on advantages of online learning – no restriction on enrolment; asynchronicity, or, “anytime, anywhere learning” for ‘digital natives’ (a generation addicted to their screens) etc.
  • Striking the right balance between physical and virtual interaction
  • Need for course creators to work closely with their IT departments to ensure online delivery support for their programs
  • Guiding students on the appropriate protocols for hand washing, covering sneezes and coughs with their elbows, and self-isolating if they are experiencing flu or cold-like symptoms
  • Need for gathering information and applying learnings from peer institutions
  • Reimagining the international student office to reflect the vision of the reimagined university and contribute to its economic viability

Ascertaining that students are placed at the heart of their strategy