ICAS Insights – Annette Bradford

Annette Bradford – International Higher Education and the COVID-19 Pandemic
April 2020

In this piece, she analyzes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international higher education.


International Higher Education and the COVID-19 Pandemic

There is no question that education has been greatly disrupted by COVID-19. Over 91% of the world’s student population is affected by school closures. Experts have praised universities for their crisis management and rapid responses, but it is difficult to capture the myriad ways COVID-19 is affecting international higher education. There has been an unprecedented shift to online learning. Study abroad programs, examinations and conferences have been canceled. International exchange organizations are laying off hundreds of employees. While it is still too early to predict the lasting impacts of the current pandemic, active discussion among the international education community suggests what we might expect.

Undoubtedly, global student mobility is one of the most visible areas of international education impacted by the virus. Travel restrictions and bans started to affect study abroad students—particularly those from China—in late January, and by early March universities around the world were canceling international travel programs and asking students to return home. Since then, social media feeds have been bustling with stories of international students stuck alone in university dorms, scrambling to find last-minute accommodation or air tickets, or grappling with the time zone challenges of synchronous online classes.

Simon Marginson, Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, provoked a collective gasp among international educators at the end of March when he suggested that it will take at least five years for global student mobility to recover from the current crisis. In the short-term, enrolments of international students will most certainly be down. Some preparing for a fall 2020 entry have been unable to take the perquisite TOEFL or GRE tests, some are worried that current travel restrictions will extend beyond the summer, and others are unwilling to risk paying full tuition when there is the possibility that class may shift online. In a survey of prospective international students conducted in February and March by global higher education analysts QS, 46% of respondents stated that COVID-19 had impacted their plans to study abroad. Of these respondents, 47% will defer entry to next year, 13% have decided to study in a different country and 8% no longer want to study abroad.

Over the longer term, it is expected that reduction in the global GDP will shrink the middle class, the expansion of which has been the main driver of international student mobility over the past decades. South Asia, a region from which many international students are drawn, will be particularly hard hit. Marginson points out that families will no longer be able to buy into international education at the scale they once did.

Hastening Change

Online commentary speaks with either alarm or hope of a post-pandemic ‘new normal’ for international education—of an enrollment and subsequent financial crisis likely to exacerbate inequalities, or of a more intentional, sustainable, less mobility-driven approach. However, it is likely that COVID-19 will not bring a complete end to international education as we know it. One argument that resonates is that of Ogden, Streitwieser and Van Mol, well known voices in the field, who believe that COVID-19 may simply accelerate changes that have been happening for some time.

Worldwide international student enrollment patterns have been changing as China, the largest source of international students, invests in its own higher education system thereby incentivizing students to stay in-country. Regional multilateral networks, such as University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP), have been expanding as students seek out cost-effective options free of troublesome visa restrictions. Educational partnerships have been evolving to include shared campus programs, such as the University of Tsukuba’s Campus-in-Campus Initiative, which provides access to partner university research and classes without requiring international travel. Intercultural experiences are increasingly offered through information and communication technology modalities, such as Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) and virtual internships. These trends are likely to continue at a quickened pace.

What might change for Japan? 

It is possible that international education in Japan could benefit from unintended positive impacts of the current crisis. QS reports that Asian students are increasingly looking to study intra-regionally. Japan’s relatively low-cost higher education could be a draw for those with less to spend on study abroad. Of course, the medical situation is still in flux, but if as Marginson suggests, East Asia recovers more quickly from the virus, there might be a greater number of students looking for opportunities in the region. Going forward students, or more accurately their parents, will be conscious of health security when making decisions about overseas study. Japan’s handling of the pandemic is critical here.

Professors in Japan are notorious for preferring ‘chalk and talk’ over more innovative teaching methods. Yet COVID-19 has encouraged many universities—65.8% of state-run universities and 35.9% of private universities, according to MEXT—to introduce remote learning, in some cases for the entire spring semester. The delay to the start of the current academic year is being used by many educators to acquaint themselves with their university’s often underutilized learning platforms as well as to design new courses. This protracted lead-in to online learning may help Japanese universities to avoid some of the pitfalls of the hastily-put-together classes seen in countries that were mid-semester when the virus took hold.

While classes will return to face-to-face format once the pandemic subsides, it is my hope that teaching staff may use this experience to leverage more hybrid methods in the future. Increased use of technology and diversified teaching modalities are vital if Japanese universities are to capitalize on potential changes to mobility patterns and compete globally. The outstanding question is whether Japanese higher education can be sufficiently adaptive to seize these opportunities.


Annette Bradford is an Associate of Oxford EM and ICAS Adjunct Fellow.  Here is her bio and publication.