Students are heading abroad again, whether for a semester or a whole degree

Universities report increased applications from foreign students as Covid-19 travel restrictions ease

A student sketching at BlockPark on the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation campus. Photo: Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation
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In May, Grand Valley State University in Michigan in the US, an institution with more than 22,000 students, revealed that increasing numbers of its students were again opting to do a semester or more abroad in the post-Covid world.

While it is just a snapshot, figures released in a statement showed that more than 110 of the university's students were preparing to study abroad, compared with fewer than 40 who completed international programmes last year.

“We are very excited to see study abroad programming resume in many parts of the world,” Rebecca Morrissey, the university’s director of study abroad and international partnerships, said in the statement.

Mirroring this, some countries are reporting that incoming foreign student numbers are rising again after a pandemic-induced downturn.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. June 21, 2019. Vince Nyguen (20) is a rising junior at New York University Abu Dhabi majoring in Interactive Media with a minor in Computer Science. He is from Vietnam and will be studying abroad next year in Shanghai and New York.  Emily Broad for The National FOR: For student gallery Section:

Sweden, for example, is experiencing some growth, according to Dr Per Nilsson, a member of The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions’ internationalisation group who works at Umea University.

“Covid had a big impact on exchange students coming for one semester,” Dr Nilsson said. “During Covid we lost about 50 per cent of all incoming exchange students, but it’s picking up. It’s also about building confidence that everything is working, it’s back to normal.”

Although numbers are increasing, Dr Nilsson expects “it will take several years” before they return to previous levels.

“There could be students looking to come back, but for some reason they hesitate,” he said.

The picture varies considerably from country to country.

The UAE invests heavily in sending students abroad to study, with widely reported figures indicating that numbers total about 15,000 a year.

One study published in May 2022 indicated that the pandemic had caused a fall of 11 per cent to 14 per cent in the number of international students applying to study in the UK, one of the top five international education destinations in terms of student numbers, mostly because fewer people from higher income countries were applying.

Figures from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency indicate that there was a slight increase in enrolments of international students in the 2020-2021 academic year, although many were studying online.

Applications for the 2022-2023 academic year to the UK are down from EU countries, according to Dr Senthil Nathan, co-founder and managing director of Edu Alliance, a higher education consultancy in Abu Dhabi and Bloomington, Indiana, US, although Brexit is blamed for this.

Many UK universities, Dr Nathan said, are reporting “significant increases” in applications from elsewhere, with numbers from China rebounding, and increases reported from India, Nigeria and other countries.

Ann Starkie, who runs AS Careers, a consultancy in the UK, has seen a similar picture regarding international students coming to the UK.

“It was affected and it’s coming back up and getting back to normal,” she said.

Canada, another top-five country, has seen its share of the international higher education market grow during the pandemic, possibly because of the “strongly articulated support from the political leadership for their international students”, Dr Nathan said.

He contrasted this with Australia, also a top-five higher education destination, where senior politicians created a “negative climate” towards international students during the pandemic.

With two successive drops of nearly a quarter in its annual enrolment of overseas students in higher education in 2020 and 2021, Australia’s rebuild in numbers “is likely to also take time”.

“Australia will need to rebuild trust with prospective international students,” said Dr Nathan, who is a former deputy vice chancellor at the UAE's Higher Colleges of Technology.

The US, the biggest market for international higher education, experienced at 45.6 per cent drop in the number of new international student enrolments between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, but numbers have since gone up, with one report suggesting they had increased 68 per cent in a year.

Nick Cifranic, 19, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, at JBR beach on Christmas day while on a study abroad programme from New York. Razan Alzayani / The National

“All evidence points to renewed interest for students to go abroad for higher education,” Dr Nathan said. “In the US, the Institute of International Education in 2021 surveyed US universities and nearly 50 per cent of the institutions planned on in-person study abroad for the fall [autumn].

“Our university contacts have stated this number of students studying overseas is continuing to increase for the upcoming fall [autumn] 2022 term.”

Universities and private-sector student accommodation providers rely heavily on international students, and these institutions and companies, after many years of revenue increases, were hit hard by the pandemic and continue to experience difficulties.

In the US, university revenues fell by an estimated $10 billion because of the drop in international student numbers.

Institutions want to attract international students again, but the enthusiasm that young people have for going abroad varies greatly. The two biggest countries for sending students abroad, China and India, provide contrasting pictures.

Interest from Indian students in going overseas is “returning to its peak”, according to Dr Nathan, but Chinese students, whose government has taken a cautious approach about opening up, are not travelling abroad for education in numbers as large as before.

India could, Dr Nathan suggested, overtake China as the top country for sending students abroad, while institutions are becoming increasingly interested in other markets, such as Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Just as Covid-19 has changed how people work, with remote employment and working from home now a normal part of life for many, so remote international education may have become more established.

In a recent book chapter, “Swedish Students’ Outbound Mobility: An Estimate of the Post-Covid-19 Situation”, Dr Nilsson wrote that Covid-19 appeared to be “reshaping the concept of studying abroad” by opening up opportunities for virtual cross-border education.

So while some students are cautious about travelling abroad, the pandemic may have created new ways to experience, albeit remotely, international education.

Updated: August 12, 2022, 3:00 AM