This International Education Week finds the sector at an inflection point. After a year and a half of adapting to distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many students navigated travel restrictions and quarantine requirements to cross the globe and get to campus this fall.
On the part of international administrators and educators, there were hopes for a speedier recovery to pre-pandemic enrollment levels than has occurred. But case spikes, subsequent lockdowns, economic fallout and increased vigilance regarding global travel posed significant obstacles to such progress over the course of 2021.
While COVID-19 has taught us many lessons — not least of all how hard it is to predict the future — there is every reason to be cautiously optimistic that we have come through the worst of the pandemic’s impacts. Here are four trends influencing student mobility that set the stage for the international education sector’s continued recovery in 2022 and beyond.
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.
Job hunting has never been easy, but a confluence of factors—from accelerated digitalization across sectors to pandemic-induced economic contraction—has made for a fundamentally changed and challenging global career landscape today.
It’s a transformation that weighs on the minds of many, but none more so than the soon-to-be university graduates who must navigate the most complex, competitive job market in recent memory. For international students in particular, landing a dream job means managing cultural differences, physical distances, immigration issues, and a range of other obstacles while navigating this new normal.
Enter INTO CareerFirst, our new, all-encompassing employability programme—the first in market to offer comprehensive support tailored for international students. Launching in October of this year, CareerFirst will pull together a network of mentors, coaches, and industry experts, state-of-the art learning technology, and curricula developed in partnership with academic colleagues and leading employers to give students the skills, connections, and experience they need to achieve their post-graduation career ambitions. Michael Lynas, Vice President, INTO CareerFirst, offers insights into how the programme will complement academic studies, integrate seamlessly with services already on offer at higher education institutions, and benefit both international students and the US and UK universities at which they study.
At the end of last year, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) released data on active international student records from September 2020, offering new insights into how COVID-19 has affected the number of international students in the U.S.* INTO, NAFSA, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities recently outlined quick facts from the data in an update to our groundbreaking report, Factors Influencing U.S. International Student Enrollment Growth and Decline.
Among other trends, the new SEVP data show that the number of students from China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—three of the top seven sending countries for international students in the U.S.—decreased far more significantly as a result of the pandemic than the number of those coming from India, the second-most sending country. Furthermore, additional data on F-1 visa issuances and international student applications for fall 2021 admission show that interest in U.S. study in India and other South Asian countries has rebounded quickly as vaccines roll out and global student mobility slowly resumes, while the number of students coming to the U.S. from China and other top sending countries continues to stagnate or decline.
In the competitive career landscape of COVID-19, international students deserve real returns on the resources and time they invest in studying abroad. As the pandemic continues to impact on the jobs market in 2021, students face dual dilemmas: the financial feasibility of their study abroad aims and the security of their postgraduate ambitions. As a result, they are not only starting to study in alternative destinations and virtual environments—they are choosing to pursue different subjects, trending toward programs like mathematics and computer science which offer growing opportunities for employment. It is a pattern at U.S. institutions that preceded the pandemic, and it will play out in years to come as employability continues to dominate among the priorities of students everywhere.
The global pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on female international students in STEM programs at U.S. institutions. According to data from the U.S. Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP), the proportion of female international students in STEM fields in the U.S. grew to new heights in the three years leading up to the pandemic. However, SEVP’s post-pandemic data shows that COVID-19 has had a more significant negative impact on the number of female international students in STEM in the U.S. than it has on the number of their male peers.
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.
The release of the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors data this week made for sobering reading among the American higher education community. Before we provide our take on the findings, we want to offer some key context to the declines we saw in 2019/20.