Living through the global COVID-19 pandemic has given all of us a fresh perspective on life. For Gen Z, coming of age under lockdown has coincided with constant exposure to online conversations around issues such as economic inequality, racism and climate change as well as an ongoing navigation of disinformation. Together, these experiences have profoundly shaped how they view their future — especially when it comes to higher education.
INTO recently undertook a survey of Gen Z students worldwide who plan to or currently study abroad. Our research shows a generational shift. Prospective and new international students are more discerning and more focused on making a difference than the cohorts that came before them, looking at their opportunities to study abroad through lenses different to those used by their predecessors. Nearly three quarters of them believe that a university’s capacity to give them the skills they need for their future is more important than its ranking, and they are considering institutions’ track records on social issues as they complete applications.
The world over, Gen Zers are emerging from the last 18 months clear-eyed about the need for a better, greener, more equitable future — and the importance of an international degree in helping them realise it.
The COVID-19 catastrophe has led every sector in every corner of the globe to rethink its modus operandi. In the context of international education, that means considering more carefully the changing expectations and motivations of the rising generation of international students, using them as guiding principles around which to imagine new modes of recruitment and teaching.
This August, INTO carried out a survey of Gen Z students around the world who are interested in or currently studying abroad. We did so with one question in mind: how will rising international students’ collective experience of the pandemic drive new paradigms of learning and working? What we found is a generation of students who are singularly resilient, adaptable and set on forging a brighter future for themselves. More than half of them are actively considering a new career path in the wake of COVID-19, and most link an international degree to clear-cut objectives that will help them pivot to career success. In order to facilitate that success – and post-pandemic recovery – the international education sector must respond to Gen Z’s evolving demands, implementing innovative programmes and delivering concrete outcomes.
The international education sector is no stranger to shocks to student mobility. In INTO’s 15-year history alone, global crises ranging from the Great Recession of 2008, to the 2012 MERS outbreak, to the 2014/15 drop in oil prices, have all affected mobility patterns. However, market conditions have rebounded after each of these challenges, driven by study abroad aspirants’ enduring enthusiasm for cultural exploration, for personal and professional development; in short, for life-changing educational experiences.
In June 2021, INTO conducted a global survey of international students who currently hold offers from our partner universities in the UK and the US, gauging their attitudes toward studying abroad in the context of COVID-19. The vast majority of respondents indicated they were confident and excited to start their studies this autumn—proof that, whilst crises like the pandemic erect barriers to international student mobility, they do not quash demand. Now more than ever, we must not lose sight of just how powerful students’ motivations to study abroad are, for it is those motivations that will serve as levers recovery in 2021 and beyond.
With 2020 in the rearview mirror, the full impact of COVID-19 on international enrollments at U.S. universities is coming to light. It is important to consider last year’s significant decreases in new international student enrollments (NSEs) in the context of long-term international enrollment phenomena, including declines in NSEs which preceded and were exacerbated by the pandemic. Institutions did not experience these pre-pandemic declines equally, nor will they start post-pandemic recovery from the same position as mobility slowly resumes in 2021.
When the COVID-19 crisis pushed US universities to close campuses and move courses online six months ago, one could scarcely imagine that the fall 2020 semester would find new students starting classes from behind their computer screens.
Even so, the student experience teams at INTO’s US centers have quickly adapted to support students through the unimaginable since the start of the pandemic. Earlier this month, they overhauled orientation to virtually welcome a new cohort of international students to their respective universities.
On July 28, INTO The University of Alabama at Birmingham (INTO UAB) Executive Director David Hofmann led one of a series of virtual, university-wide seminars on resilient leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. The session centered on cultural intelligence and international student support during the outbreak.
“I wanted colleagues to understand a little more about what’s happening within the INTO UAB center and what international students’ experiences are during COVID-19,” Hofmann said of his talk.
More than two months ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced formal lockdown measures to combat the rise in new COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom. For many in the U.K., that announcement signaled the start of physical distancing. However, Qingying Lin, Chinese-language support officer at INTO Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), recalls that her centre had moved all face-to-face learning and extracurricular support online by March 18—five days before the PM’s announcement.
INTO’s 10 other U.K. centres transitioned to digital provision along similar timelines, which means that they have now passed 10 weeks of distance education and support of their respective international student cohorts. Perhaps paradoxically, what has struck our student support teams most during quarantine is the togetherness they and their students have maintained across that distance—a testament to their agility and resilience.
I was delighted to participate in a webinar hosted by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at University of California, Berkeley on May 7, exploring the extent to which COVID-19 will shape international student mobility. The full seminar is available on YouTube, but I outline my thoughts on the ways in which the Asian financial crisis of 1997 might provide some insight into how sudden shocks can alter the trajectory of global student mobility below.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak led universities in Europe and North America to implement physical distancing policies, universities in China had to face the emerging realities of what is now a global pandemic. In partnership with Nankai University, INTO has seen a cohort of 43 international students through a campus lockdown and University-wide transition to online learning since late January. Now, they are helping students adapt to life under less stringent quarantine measures.