Pandemic ‘made some students keener to study abroad’

Universities should avoid rushed assumptions about Covid’s financial impacts and its effects on study plans, survey suggests

March 16, 2022
 tourist is using his smart phone to take a photo of Flinders Street Train Station in Melbourne, Victoria
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Covid’s dampening effect on international education may have been “overstated”, with the financial impacts unlikely to affect demand one way or the other for a sizeable minority of globetrotting students – and likely to make some more determined than ever.

Private education chain Navitas has found that over 40 per cent of intending students and their families either benefited financially during the crisis or suffered no economic impacts. And it would be a mistake to assume that coronavirus had scuttled study plans among the 50 to 60 per cent of students who found themselves worse off as a result.

“Those who have had a difficult time during the pandemic might be more motivated to study abroad in order to improve their circumstances,” Australia-based Navitas analyst Jon Chew explains in a new paper. “The pandemic could have the effect of amplifying aspirations and ambitions.”

Mr Chew said the “psychological scarring” of coronavirus lockdowns could also prove an impetus for study abroad, particularly for students coming from countries without reliable healthcare or strong government safety nets.

“In the same way that economic security has historically been a driver for studying abroad, health security could well be a new reason for the Covid generation to pursue opportunities and life elsewhere.”  

His analysis is based on an October survey of the perceptions of more than 1,000 education agents in over 70 countries. Agents have unique insights into the thinking of students and their parents, Mr Chew told Times Higher Education. “That’s why we listen to them,” he said.

“One of the great inequities of Covid was that if you were asset-rich, you probably did alright as a household…[but] how did that actually affect the motivation for study abroad? That’s been quite interesting, and quite mixed.”

He calculated that around 8 per cent of globally mobile students were from families whose financial situation had improved during the pandemic, and were more intent on studying abroad as a result. A slightly larger 10 per cent had become more committed to overseas study despite – and perhaps because of – Covid’s negative financial impacts.

Another 38 per cent had rethought international education plans, mostly – but not entirely – after the pandemic left them stretched of resources. “There’s a big fifth group in the middle, which is probably mostly unaffected,” Mr Chew said.

He questioned how long the “reluctant” students would hold off their study aspirations. “We’ve got the interesting dynamic now where all the major English-speaking destinations are crying out with skills shortages, record low unemployment and the like.

“If you were thinking you wouldn’t study abroad because you couldn’t afford it, do things like skill shortages and uncapped work hours change your arithmetic for you? [You might] say, I couldn’t have afforded it in normal times – but these are not normal times.”

The survey also found stark differences between Chinese students and their foreign peers. While most students’ concerns centred around tuition costs, work rights, educational quality and the ability to travel, Chinese mainlanders were most focused on Covid caseloads, safety and security.

Mr Chew said it was natural for people in a nation pursuing a “zero-Covid strategy” to be alarmed at daily infections in the tens of thousands, in countries that had decided to live with the virus. “At the end of the day, it’s still an unpleasant disease.”

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