Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
1st Apr 2020

Looking ahead: Scenario planning and recovery forecasts for international education

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The pandemic will have a significant impact on the global economy and international educators are looking ahead to try to prepare for the rest of 2020 and into 2021
  • There are a number of scenarios operating at the moment, all of which are underpinned by the strong continuing demand for study abroad

The SARS virus first appeared in early 2003. Over the next several months, it spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia before the outbreak was contained. By that time, there had been more than 8,000 cases worldwide and nearly 800 deaths.

In short, it was a significant event both in terms of public health and the global economy. Strictly in economic terms, the recovery period after was somewhere between one and two years with some impacts lingering outside of that window – and that even with a relatively rapid recovery of the Chinese economy at the time.

You only have to say the word “SARS” to an experienced international education practitioner to measure the impact of that event on international student mobility. Many institutions and destination countries were then – as they are now – heavily reliant on Chinese students and the drop in Chinese outbound (which worked out to a total decline of a bit more than 8% at the time) was felt around the world. It took the better part of two years to see those outbound numbers recover, and SARS became an object lesson as to how a public health crisis can directly affect student mobility.

How then to measure the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic? This is, after all, an event for which we have to reach back to the 1918 Spanish Flu to find anything comparable. As of 1 April 2020, there are nearly 800,000 cases worldwide and almost 40,000 deaths. The sheer scale of the outbreak has pushed us all into uncharted territory.

Not surprisingly, there are many scenarios and forecasts circulating today, but truly we are too early in the outbreak to be able to project its full reach. The more optimistic projections foresee travel restrictions and social isolation measures ending in the next three months or so, and then – for international educators – a return to active recruitment, teaching, and learning in the last four months of 2020.

That category of forecast relies in part on an expectation that the global economy will also return to form quickly, buoyed in part by a multi-trillion-dollar intervention by G20 governments.

There are a variety of less optimistic scenarios, most of which factor a slower and longer economic recovery and – for educators and students – a return to normal recruiting and academic cycles in 2021.

Leaving that range of possibility aside for a moment, there are at least two certainties in all of this.

1. The pandemic will have a significant impact on the global economy, and that impact will be uneven. If G20 governments are rushing to buffer their economies, many countries in the developing world will be less able to do so. And it is those markets – in Africa and South Asia particularly – that are expected to drive a lot of the continued growth in student mobility in the years ahead. If the pandemic significantly depresses household incomes or erodes the burgeoning middle class populations in those markets, then the growth projections for those key emerging markets will immediately be reset.

2. China will figure more prominently in the overall global recovery than it did in 2002. The Chinese economy is much larger today than it was at the time of SARS and much more tightly integrated in global supply chains. When it comes to student mobility, China and India have been the engines of growth in over the last ten years and more, and any significant decline in outbound from either or both markets will immediately be felt in destinations around the world.

The five-year recovery

Speaking at Universities UK’s online International Higher Education Forum last week, Simon Marginson, the director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford, set out a stark but realistic scenario. “The overall position for international education is that it’s going to take a massive hit. I think that we’re looking at at least a five-year recovery period in terms of the global numbers of people who move between countries for education.”

Professor Marginson sees the market shifting in at least two important ways as a result.

1. That the international student market will become “a buyer’s market” with institutions and schools competing harder for a smaller population of prospective students.

2. That there will be a greater emphasis on intra-regional mobility, and especially so in East Asia. In this sense, he is anticipating that issues of proximity, health security, and affordability will sharpen a trend towards greater mobility within the region that we have observed in recent years.

That then is the rough shape of a “new normal” for international education, one where we wrestle with new varying states of travel restrictions and health advisories, where currencies and markets shift, and where market dynamics are reset.

As always, our students and prospective students are at the centre of all of those challenges and the things we can’t see clearly yet. The demand for study abroad is not going away, and there is every indication that students intend to follow through on their plans, even if they have to defer their studies or pivot to online learning for the time being.

For additional background, please see:

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