International higher education at a crossroads post-COVID

With the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on the higher education environment in mind, we are proposing to look forward and venture a few preliminary observations. At the beginning of the crisis, we provided two assessments – and by and large, we think that we were right in our analysis. See “COVID-19: The internationalisation revolution that isn’t” and “Are we at a transformative moment for online learning?”.

Overall, we argued that, while the pandemic would create significant short-term difficulties and longer-term challenges, higher education was unlikely to change fundamentally.

Of course, circumstances vary by country and region, and those parts of the world where the virus is still raging, in particular the Global South, will be much more gravely affected.

Yet, we do not think that an academic revolution is about to take place. But we also fear that inequality between the Global North and China, on the one hand, and the Global South on the other, will deepen.

We propose to reflect on challenges ahead through five key themes – fortuitously, all starting with a ‘C’.


In some respects, the pandemic brought significant changes to higher education. The most important is an increased recognition of the relevance and importance of distance higher education and accompanying improvement in both the methods and the technology related to distance instruction and research collaboration.

While we do not believe that higher education will be radically transformed, it is clear that distance technology and methods will play a much greater role everywhere.

This includes an increase in fully online degree programmes, hybrid instruction as a component of traditional degrees and collaborative online learning. Much remains to be done, including ensuring that internet resources are accessible to all, and that technology, teaching methods and educational content are further improved.

The pandemic taught us that experiencing a real campus life is crucial for students, academic staff and administrators. But moving forward, digitalisation will become an ever more important aspect of higher education – impacting in particular on student and faculty mobility, professional development and teaching and learning.

It will take time for global patterns of student degree mobility to return to pre-COVID-19 levels, and these patterns and related numbers are likely to change.

For example, even before the pandemic, the annual increase in the number of Chinese students going abroad was slowing down. It will probably decline even more in the immediate future. Countries such as India, hard hit by the virus and economic disruptions, will also witness a decline in terms of numbers of outbound students.

As a result, leading host countries with a financial dependence on international students, such as Australia, will face drastically reduced enrolments.

Short-term study abroad as part of a home degree, a strong component of student mobility in Europe and the United States, came to a halt during the pandemic. It is more likely, however, that short-term mobility will gradually move back to normal levels, although other ‘C’ factors might have an influence.

The COVID-19 crisis convinced many that international research collaboration contributed significantly to finding scientific solutions, in particular developing vaccines as well as advancing knowledge. This positive perception is likely to remain.


When economies slowed down and transportation was suspended during the pandemic, nature appeared to be taking a breath. The seriousness of the global climate crisis is increasingly acknowledged and the adherence of the higher education community to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is overwhelming.

The necessity to limit air travel may have an impact on short-term student mobility, in particular in Europe and the United States. Stimulated by the pandemic, universities are investigating alternative options to physical mobility, with active support from public authorities, as, for instance, in the European Union and Japan.

In the Global South, where short-term physical mobility, which was too expensive, was never a serious option on a large scale, models of virtual mobility may provide ways of strengthening the international and intercultural competences of students.

Collaboration in research and teaching

Science is an international enterprise. This is illustrated by patterns of joint authorship of scientific articles and cross-border research collaboration. There are an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 postdocs worldwide – with 100,000 in the United States alone. Thousands of academic staff are internationally mobile.

While global science will continue, it is not clear how the pandemic or other headwinds will affect patterns of global mobility of academic staff and doctoral students. See Tessa DeLaquil and Lizhou Wang’s article “Undervaluing doctoral education post-COVID brings risks”.


In the past several decades, China has in every respect become a major force in global higher education. Not only is it the largest higher education system in the world in terms of student enrolments, it is also the second largest producer of published research.

More than 650,000 Chinese students study abroad and half a million international students study in China. The majority of outbound Chinese students go to the main English-speaking host countries, but significant numbers are going to Western Europe as well. International students headed for China come mainly from other East and Southeast Asian countries and from Africa.

The pandemic has disrupted China’s mobility patterns, and while it is not expected that the pandemic will have a lasting impact, short- and medium-term effects are likely to be felt, with economic and other implications for institutions and countries, such as Australia, that have come to depend on Chinese students for income.

Of greater importance are a range of global socio-political conflicts in which China is involved. Disruptions of academic relations include disputes concerning the 500 Confucius Institutes around the world – which are being criticised for their ties to the Chinese government – and accusations of intellectual property theft. Inauspicious developments in China, such as increased restrictions on academic freedom and the clampdown in Hong Kong, are also creating tensions.

The commercialisation of internationalisation

Internationalisation of higher education has become a major industry. International students bring a significant income to their host countries, adding, for example, US$45 billion to the American economy and US$24 billion to Australia’s.

This corresponds to an equivalent financial loss for their countries of origin (China, India and other countries of the Global South), which have invested in their secondary and undergraduate education. (This loss is further aggravated by students taking up employment in their host countries, often the result of intentional national policies, and failing to return.)

Hundreds of commercial agents recruiting international students, a booming industry devoted to English language instruction, test preparation companies assisting students who seek admission abroad and student housing companies are all part of the massive, but little understood, commercial industry of student mobility. Whether this industry serves the interests of students or universities well is an open question.

The growing influence of edtech companies has added to the uncertainty. On the one hand, in recent years new companies such as ApplyBoard have entered the market with deep pockets and the support of venture capital. At the same time, partnerships are occurring between these companies and traditional players such as Times Higher Education and Educational Testing Service, as well as with the world of agents. While outcomes are uncertain, this industry will undergo big changes involving new players and mergers.

Because the market is changing, it is not clear who the winners and the losers will be. Most players are still focused on recruiting students from the Global South to English-speaking countries in the Global North. But with non-Anglophone countries strengthening their student recruitment activities, the market is likely to become more diverse, and competition sharpened.

A crossroads

We are undoubtedly at an important crossroads for international higher education. While we do not anticipate a revolution, we do see serious challenges, in particular concerning access and equity. But there is also an opportunity for governments and universities to learn from the experiences of the past one-and-a-half years and address systemic social and educational issues that were compounded by the pandemic.

Philip G Altbach is distinguished fellow and founding director of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, United States. E-mail: Hans de Wit is distinguished fellow and former director of the same centre. E-mail: