Beware unequal impact of international student enrolments

Internationalisation of higher education, and especially student mobility, has been dramatically – and largely negatively – affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, many predicted that the recruitment of degree-seeking international students, which was a major internationalisation activity for many higher education institutions around the world prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, would decline because of the travel restrictions and other barriers to admissions and enrolment (for example, delayed testing opportunities or curtailed visa processing services) imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, one full academic year has elapsed since the official start of the pandemic in March 2020 and figures on the enrolment of degree-seeking international students are beginning to emerge. What do some of these data tell us?

According to two recent surveys – one by the European Association of International Education (EAIE) and the other by the International Association of Universities (IAU) – decreases in degree-seeking international students’ enrolment for the academic year 2020-21, as compared to the academic year 2019-20, have indeed been widespread. However, these decreases may have been more prevalent in some regions of Europe than others.

At the same time, there are some indications of stability, and even growth, in the numbers for some institutions, and some evidence that Europe as a region has fared slightly better than other world regions.

Indications from the surveys

The IAU and EAIE data collection efforts differed somewhat in nature and scope. The EAIE’s snapshot survey was conducted over one month (between 18 June and 19 July 2021) and focused only on degree-seeking international student applications and enrolment, while the IAU survey was a broader exercise conducted over three and a half months (in the period between 15 February and 1 June 2021).

The IAU survey aimed to capture information on the impact on governance and financing, teaching and learning, research, and societal or community engagement one year into the pandemic.

For its part, the EAIE survey collected replies from individuals working at higher education institutions in the European Higher Education Area, while the IAU survey’s scope was global and sought institutional replies.

Despite these differences, the two surveys featured one question that was almost identical, which focused specifically on a comparison of enrolments of international degree-seeking students between the 2020-21 and 2019-20 academic years. Comparing the data from these two different survey sources offers a two-pronged perspective on these enrolment dynamics.

2019-20 versus 2020-21: more losses than gains

The IAU survey results depict a more negative picture than that conveyed by the EAIE data with respect to the enrolment of international degree-seeking students in 2020-21. Just over half (54%) of the respondents to the IAU survey reported a decrease in enrolment compared to 40% of EAIE survey respondents.

At the same time, only 16% of IAU survey respondents reported an increase in their international student enrolment, against 26% of respondents to the EAIE survey. The percentage of respondents who reported no change is similar across both surveys (30% in the IAU and 34% in the EAIE survey).

One possible reason for the discrepancy in these results could be the different representation of countries in the two surveys. Indeed, Germany is the only country that features in both survey’s lists of top-responding countries.

EAIE survey (responses)
Netherlands (30)
France (25)
Spain (25)
Slovenia (24)
Italy (23)
United Kingdom (18)
Belgium (17)
Finland (16)
Germany (16)

IAU survey (responses)
Ukraine (14)
Russian Federation (13)
Slovakia (11)
Czech Republic (10)
Portugal (10)
Armenia (9)
Germany (9)
Malta (9)
Sweden (9)

It could be that the decrease in enrolment of international students was more significant in the countries most represented in the IAU survey, which are mainly in Eastern and Central Europe, while the countries most represented in the EAIE survey are mostly from Western Europe.

Future expectations and global comparisons

The EAIE survey also explored expectations for enrolment of degree-seeking international students for the academic year 2021-22 and queried respondents on how application numbers from students were looking as compared to the same moment in 2020.

The results show that there is an alignment between application and anticipated enrolment. More than half of higher education institutions reported an increase in student applications and expect an increase in enrolment, while fewer than 15% foresee a decrease.

Particularly among those respondents whose institutions experienced a decrease in the academic year 2020-21 but expect an increase for the year 2021-22, it will be very interesting to see if those optimistic expectations pan out and to what extent – if at all – any increases in 2021-22 enrolments compensate for the drops in degree-seeking international students that were experienced in 2020-21.

While sheer numbers are important, so too are matters of geography. The IAU survey explored information on the source region of international students by specifically asking respondents to provide data on enrolments of degree-seeking international students from the same region of the world as the respondent institution and from other regions of the world.

The trends for both in-region and out-of-region enrolments were similar but, as expected, a higher percentage of higher education institutions reported a decrease in enrolment among international students from other regions of the world (59%) than from the same region as the responding institution (49%).

The IAU survey also allows for comparison of enrolment between Europe and other regions of the world. While the trends are similar across all regions, the percentage of higher education institutions reporting a decrease in enrolment of international degree-seeking students in 2020-21 is lowest in Europe.

At a global level, then, Europe appears to be the region of the world that was least negatively affected by the overall downturn in international student enrolment last year.

A matter of perspective

The data that emerged from the IAU and EAIE survey activities confirm negative impacts on the enrolment of international degree-seeking students in Europe last year.

The differences between the results of the two surveys also suggest that those negative impacts may have been more deeply felt in Eastern and Central Europe than in Western Europe, and even more so in other world regions beyond Europe.

When it comes to 2021-22, the data also indicate real hope for recovery in the European context.

It is important to highlight, of course, that both surveys reveal the existence of inequality among higher education institutions, in Europe and elsewhere. While for some institutions the pandemic had a negative effect on the recruitment of degree-seeking international students, others increased their enrolment numbers.

Even as the expectations for the next academic year appear brighter – and this is cause for real enthusiasm and celebration – there is still a group of higher education institutions that foresee a decrease in enrolment of international students.

This risk of increased inequality is something the higher education community should be keenly aware of and endeavour to counter.

Despite the many, complex and extended difficulties presented by the pandemic, the benefits of an international student experience should not be restricted to a privileged group of students who study only at certain institutions clustered in specific countries or world regions.

Giorgio Marinoni is manager, higher education and internationalisation, at the International Association of Universities. E-mail: Trine Jensen is manager, higher education and digital transformation, publication and events, at the International Association of Universities. E-mail: Dr Laura E Rumbley is associate director, knowledge development and research, at the European Association for International Education. E-mail: