Universities in ‘no mood’ to rush back to HE globalisation

As universities and countries around the world work overtime trying to gain the post-pandemic competitive edge with regard to international students, a university leader in New Zealand has challenged many of the assumptions driving globalisation and the internationalisation of higher education.

Universities in New Zealand have not had any new in-country international students on campus since March 2020 and are not expecting any meaningful numbers until January 2023, the deputy vice-chancellor (strategic development) at the University of Auckland told delegates to this year’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) hosted by Universities UK International.

And according to Dr Erik Lithander, who took up his post in New Zealand after an academic career in the United Kingdom and Australia, the country’s higher education system is not in the mood to rush back to embrace globalisation after two years of having “no immigration, zero tourism, severely disrupted supply chains and almost complete withdrawal from in-person international business”.

Soul searching

Instead, together with the New Zealand government and many other parts of society, universities such as Auckland have started “soul searching” about the fundamental character and underlying operating model for the country post-pandemic, he said.

Lithander was taking part in an online debate on “International student recruitment: Who has the competitive edge?” at the #IHEF22 conference with representatives from the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States.

He said as a country, New Zealand managed to cope unexpectedly well during the COVID-19 health emergency, experiencing only 135 deaths from the virus that gripped the world and comparatively few confirmed cases or people hospitalised.

“For universities, not having international students on campus has, of course, been felt financially, but it has not led to the systemic collapse that one might have predicted.”

Democracy without globalisation

“So, the natural question we are asking is whether, as a country, we should make some of these changes permanent rather than going back to the way things were: essentially a new way of running a Western democracy without embracing globalisation,” he said.

To illustrate the point, Lithander said if his university was suddenly at the top of all the major rankings tomorrow, it would make no difference to the number of international on-campus students recruited because not only are borders still closed to foreign students, but “visa processing offices are unlikely to gear up in time to meaningfully help enrolments this calendar year”.

And his university would not be in a panic about a missed opportunity to flood the campus with students from abroad, preferring instead to take part in soul searching about what type of nation its citizens and leaders want the country to be in the post-pandemic world.

The soul searching is timely for New Zealanders as this is election year and the polls are narrowing, with the current government far from certain to win despite the plaudits from around the world for how it handled the pandemic.

For universities, the big questions are whether they can be less reliant on international students to keep them financially afloat, and whether New Zealand should act to reduce its competitive edge against other major English-speaking competitor markets for global student talent.

And should it erode, rather than improve, its post-study work rights and make itself less attractive to potential study abroad students?

“It might make political sense to do just that,” said Lithander.

Australia’s challenges

In contrast to New Zealand’s soul searching, Australia wants to see international students flooding back to the country after years of mixed messaging by its government and the poor handling of overseas students stranded in the country when COVID-19 struck, said Phil Honeywood, chief executive officer of the International Education Association of Australia.

He told IHEF delegates in a prerecorded video message that he had in the past been able to thank British politicians personally, including former universities minister David Willetts and ex-prime minister Theresa May, for making the UK less attractive to foreign students – which Australia had seized upon to boost its international student intake.

Now Australia’s mishandling of the early waves of the pandemic and the government’s failure to look after international students unable to get home when their universities and society went into lockdown have damaged its reputation.

The number of international students studying with Australian universities plunged from 500,000 to 200,000 in just two years, he said, with the biggest fall being in the all-important Chinese market.

Sunny Yang, associate vice-president for student recruitment and admissions at Monash University, Australia, which enrols 86,000 students worldwide, said commencements were down by 28% last year. All but one of its top 100 recruiting markets saw a drop, the one exception being the Maldives which stood still.

China, which Honeywood said had accounted for 35% of international students coming to Australian universities pre-pandemic, was still down.

Worryingly, said Yang, foundation programmes in China, which act as a pathway into Australian higher education, were down by 39%, meaning “recovery in China will be much slower than elsewhere”.

She predicted: “The shifting of the deck chairs of destination countries will continue and competition will hot up. This will be good for students who will be presented with a lot more scholarships and incentives despite this pushing up institutions’ costs.”

Rising demand

Robin Matross Helms, assistant vice-president for programmes and global initiatives at the American Council on Education, said international enrolments at universities in the United States fell by 15% in the first year of the pandemic, but that was largely down to the unwelcoming messages received by foreign students and applicants during the Trump administration.

“Numbers have started to rebound and were up by 4% in the fall of 2021,” she said.

Demand to study at UK universities from international students is rising, except among students from the European Union, said Maddalaine Ansell, director of education at the British Council.

Asked what the UK should do to maintain its competitive edge apart from resting on its reputation for quality higher education, Ansell said support for employability was all-important, as was making sure international students received a warm welcome and felt part of the community. And the visa experience “should be as smooth as possible”.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at