International student mobility in the wake of COVID-19

The United States Institute of International Education (IIE) has just published the numbers of international students enrolled at US universities in the 2020-21 academic year. With this update, figures are now available for the four most significant host countries worldwide (the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany), allowing a first assessment of the pandemic’s impact on international student mobility.

So, what general developments can be observed? And what country-specific effects are emerging?

Cross-national impact

First, credit mobility has suffered more than degree mobility. The number of students who go abroad for just a semester or a placement as part of their studies at home has slumped significantly, falling much more than the number of students who complete an entire degree abroad. This hardly comes as a surprise: a semester or a placement abroad is cancelled or postponed more quickly than a masters degree abroad planned long in advance.

In addition, digital distance learning, which many universities introduced as an option for international students in the COVID-19 pandemic, may be acceptable as an entry point for a longer-term stay abroad. But for many students a purely virtual semester or internship abroad does not seem to have been a sufficient substitute for the classroom stay at the host university.

Second, bachelor degree programmes are more affected by the pandemic-related decline in international student numbers than masters degree programmes. There are plausible reasons for this trend too.

It is likely that a large proportion of the international first-year students who enrolled in a masters programme in the 2020-21 academic year had already been in the host country before, for example, to complete a bachelor degree programme. This would have removed entry hurdles for them.

COVID-19 may even have increased the motivation to follow up a bachelor degree abroad with a masters degree in the same country. After all, looking for a job in the middle of a pandemic was certainly not a promising option for most recent graduates.

And a return to their home country would presumably have been associated with greater health risks for some of those affected or, in some cases, would not have been possible at all – because of strict exit or entry restrictions worldwide.

However, this is where the cross-national similarities end. Depending on the students’ country of origin and host country, the pandemic had very different effects on student mobility.

On the one hand, this is due to the different travel restrictions. Australia, for example, reacted to the pandemic with a very strict and long-term entry ban (even for its own citizens). On the other side of the spectrum are countries such as Germany, which only had basic entry bans for a very short period of time in 2020 and quickly introduced special permits for the entry of various groups of people, for example, students and researchers after June 2020.

In many countries of origin, it was probably the pandemic situation at home that shaped the students’ decision to go abroad or not. This is likely to be the reason why, for example, there was a much smaller drop in the number of first-year students from India than from China in the 2020-21 winter semester in Germany.

Developments in the four main host countries

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a particularly severe blow to the United States in terms of international student mobility. According to the newly published IIE data, the total number of international students in the 2020-21 academic year fell by 15% compared to the previous year.

The pandemic impact is even more pronounced when looking only at newly enrolled international students, where the decline was 46%. Here, too, the massive 64% drop in credit mobility and the much smaller drop in degree mobility (-13%) are striking.

A direct comparison of bachelor and masters degree programmes is not possible for the US, as the figures for masters programmes are not reported separately by the IIE. However, undergraduate studies also suffered a little more from the pandemic impact (-14%) than postgraduate studies (-12%).

For the United Kingdom, official student data published for the 2020-21 academic year which cover all international students enrolled at British universities in the country are not yet available from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. As a substitute, however, it is possible to analyse the figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service which at least recorded all newly admitted international and degree-seeking undergraduate students in the UK.

The surprising finding is that there is no negative pandemic impact in the number of international applicants admitted in 2020 compared to the previous year. On the contrary, the number of international bachelor degree students admitted actually increased by around 11%.

On this basis, it can be predicted that the total number of international students in the UK also increased in 2020, especially since the number of newly enrolled international masters students is very likely to have risen even more than the number of bachelor degree students.

Like the US, Australia saw a decline in the total number of international students in 2020, by around 5% compared to 2019. For newly enrolled students, the decline in 2020 was 23%.

The fact that this slump was not even higher, given the general entry ban, is most likely due to the fact that the entry ban did not apply until 20 March 2020 and a large proportion of the newly enrolled international students in that year had already entered Australia.

On the basis of the available data for Australia, distinctions between credit and degree mobility as well as degree types are not yet possible.

Finally, what about Germany, the only non-English-speaking host country in the top four? The total number of international students increased by around 2% in the 2020-21 winter semester compared to the previous year, while around 22% fewer new international students enrolled compared to the previous year (2020 summer semester plus 2020-21 winter semester).

The drop in enrolments was mainly due to the massive decrease in credit mobility: 54% fewer visiting and exchange students (mainly via the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme) came to Germany in the 2020 summer semester. The same detailed data for the 2020-21 winter semester are not yet available.

However, this decline in credit mobility had hardly any effect on the total number of international students in the following semester, because the majority of the first-semester students who dropped out had planned to stay in Germany for only one semester.

In addition, international visiting and exchange students make up only about 8% of all international students in Germany. As the number of newly enrolled international degree-seeking students did not fall as sharply as the number of visiting and exchange students, there was no noticeable and lasting effect on the total number of students in Germany.

One of the trends indicated in the cross-national analysis described above also comes into play here: many regular students are likely to have taken up a masters degree directly after the bachelor degree because of the pandemic and despite their original plans.

For other students, the challenges of mastering digital courses are likely to have delayed graduation – they also remained in the system and in the statistics longer than usual. So, compared to a ‘normal year’, a significantly smaller proportion of international students left the study system – and thus compensated for the decline in new enrolments.

The outlook for the future

The United Kingdom is a notable exception among the four major host countries for international students. British universities have shown extraordinary commitment to attracting prospective international students, in some cases even organising charter flights for students from key host countries.

This has met with some success: instead of fewer international students, the UK was actually able to attract more students in the first pandemic year of 2020. The fact that the UK is considered by many prospective international students to be the first (and even somewhat cheaper) alternative to the US probably helped.

International surveys suggest that the UK’s initially successful vaccination campaign and its perceived comparatively open and welcoming culture led many international students to reorient themselves away from the US and towards the UK.

Germany ranks between the US and the United Kingdom and, as in the US, there were significant declines in new enrolments, but there was even a slight increase in the total number of international students.

What’s next? For the United States, a trend reversal is on the horizon for 2021. IIE surveyed more than 860 US higher education institutions and they report a 68% increase in newly enrolled international students for the 2021-22 academic year. The total number of international students is said to have increased by as much as 4%, according to the survey.

In the UK, the number of international student applicants in 2021 apparently fell slightly compared to the previous year, specifically by 4%. However, this is obviously not a pandemic impact, but a Brexit effect: the number of applicants from EU countries slumped by around 4%, while non-EU countries of origin saw an increase of around 16%.

In Australia, in contrast to the United States, there is still no sign of a trend reversal. On the contrary, according to the latest figures, the decline in new enrolments of international students in 2021 was even greater than in the previous year, at around 31% and the same applies to the decline in the total number of international students (down 16%).

In Germany, the association ‘Uni-assist’, which supports about half of all German universities in processing applications from abroad, reported a similar number of international applicants for the current winter semester as a year ago. So, while no trend reversal can be seen yet, there is no sign of a further decline either.

Should these trends be confirmed, Germany could replace Australia as the third most important host country for international students as early as next year.

Dr Jan Kercher is a senior researcher in data and studies on higher education internationalisation and international academic mobility at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). He is responsible for the annual data compendium ‘Wissenschaft weltoffen’ (Science Open to the World) and the ‘Benchmark Internationale Hochschule’ (International Universities Benchmark) project, a regular and Germany-wide survey on student mobility in Germany. This article was first published in German on Jan-Martin Wiarda’s Blog.