Landscape of post-pandemic transnational higher education

The COVID-19 pandemic impacts the landscape of transnational higher education (TNHE) in three dimensions: student mobility, economic recession and international political tension.

As a health catastrophe, COVID-19 affects cross-border mobility, opening up opportunities for TNHE to absorb the demand for international qualifications. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis shows how TNHE may come into its own during a recession. However, the international political climate is less than certain and TNHE providers are facing a landscape filled with rising nationalistic rhetoric and self-serving interest.

Cross-border student mobility

While there are many types and names for TNHE programmes and services, the key feature of TNHE is the absence or lack of the need for cross-border student mobility to obtain international qualifications. In TNHE, the programmes, rather than the students, are mobile. The pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on mobility. All internationally mobile students are affected.

Even if students are already in a destination country, they still have to take their courses online, locked in their accommodation, as universities are predominantly closed.

For most international students, studying without face-to-face interaction with their professors and peers defeats the purpose of being internationally mobile in the first place.

Some destination countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, seem to have the pandemic under control and can contemplate taking in international students, whereas the United States threatens to deport international students enrolled in online-only courses.

Given the uncertainties, many international students are opting to defer or cancel their plans to study overseas.

In this highly limited mobility situation, TNHE can absorb the demand for international qualifications by providing greater safety and flexible mobility schemes. In host countries where the pandemic has been well controlled, such as Vietnam, students can safely attend face-to-face classes in TNHE programmes and obtain international qualifications.

In countries still grappling with a rising infection rate, such as Indonesia, TNHE classes still have to be delivered online, but students study in their own countries, minimising the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 through international travel.

Regardless of online or face-to-face delivery modes, through credit transfer and articulation schemes, TNHE programmes can still afford enrolled students the opportunity to spend a period studying at the overseas university offering the programmes when the pandemic has subsided.

This flexible TNHE programme arrangement gives students the chance to ‘weather out’ the pandemic – a significant competitive advantage, provided that the students see TNHE qualifications as academically prestigious and offering value for money.

Global economic recession

This value-for-money factor is essential given that the pandemic is bringing recession to many countries. Being the first country impacted by COVID-19, China’s GDP contracted 6.8% in the first quarter of 2020. As the biggest market of international higher education and the second biggest economy in the world, this contraction affects the purchasing power for international higher education.

Historically, the emergence of TNHE in East and Southeast Asia was triggered by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which forced many internationally mobile students to return to their home countries. To tap into students’ need and prevent further financial loss, many overseas universities set up TNHE programmes in the region so that students could obtain international qualifications without spending a fortune. Since then, TNHE has been a fixed feature of the higher education sector in host countries like Malaysia and Singapore.

However, in other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, TNHE remains a niche market. The combination of pandemic and economic recession may change this situation.

As noted earlier, TNHE acts as a demand absorber for students seeking international qualifications who face mobility restrictions. Coupled with an economic crisis, many students who would normally bypass TNHE for direct entry to an overseas university will have to find a more cost- and life-saving alternative.

This is a unique opportunity for TNHE providers to not only recruit more students but also demonstrate that they are not just a temporary alternative to overseas study. They can be reliable bona fide education providers, offering flexible and cost-efficient tuition.

If this endeavour is successful, TNHE will be increasingly accepted as a mainstream feature of the post-pandemic higher education landscape in such countries.

Nevertheless, careful educational management and adequate quality assurance are paramount. Without them, TNHE programmes will not have academic rigour, which is the precondition for TNHE sustainability.

International political tension

Finally, the post-pandemic TNHE landscape will be made more complex by the rising tension between the two most powerful countries, China and the US. They have increasingly exchanged inflammatory statements, bringing their bilateral ties to a nadir and affecting international scientific and higher education collaboration.

In May 2020, the US government terminated funding for research projects where it partnered with Wuhan Institute of Virology and announced sanctions against Harbin Engineering University and Harbin Institute of Technology for aiding the Chinese military.

Several US senators, led by Tom Cotton, have encouraged the banning of Chinese students from studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in the US. While China has not taken retaliatory measures towards the US in the higher education sector, it has increased pressure on Australia, a US ally.

The Australian attempt to broker an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 was met with a threat that Chinese students might avoid coming to Australia.

As the political tension continues, it does not necessarily mean that TNHE will cease altogether. It is unlikely that the US can prohibit its universities from offering TNHE in China, let alone influence its allies to do likewise. Similarly, China will not stop TNHE, as it is needed to meet higher education demand and transfer knowledge.

However, in the future sensitive courses and research partnerships will likely be stopped or offered in a controlled manner – affecting the quality and quantity of TNHE provision globally.

Following the example of the US and China, many countries will prioritise their national interest and in one way or another try to intervene in international higher education and scientific collaboration.

TNHE providers may have to navigate a more complicated landscape where national security can increasingly determine what courses can be offered and who can deliver them, while simultaneously balancing academic rigour and financial viability.

To conclude, opportunities to grow TNHE abound during this COVID-19 pandemic, although not without challenges. Disruptions to global mobility and economic recession create a situation where internationally mobile students may opt to refrain from studying onshore for their international qualifications.

These situations allow TNHE operators to absorb existing demand for international qualifications by offering flexible study options, which reduce the health risks and the cost borne by students.

Providing TNHE programmes can deliver high quality education, they can further penetrate markets that have been more unaccommodating prior to the pandemic.

As the international political situation worsens, TNHE operators face a complicated landscape that may limit the offering of academic programmes and oblige them to carefully balance different national interests with global scientific and educational exchange.

The post-COVID-19 landscape of TNHE may be simultaneously promising and challenging, requiring all operators to prudently consider their course of action.

Agustian Sutrisno lectures at Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia in Jakarta. He was a Fulbright visiting scholar at the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States, in 2017. E-mail: