One the many spinoffs of the coronavirus is crystallising what universities are really for, according to the Chief Scientific Officer at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Speaking to Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) 2020 on 26 March, Professor Carole Mundell praised the way universities had moved their courses and activities online and “mobilised final year medical students who are now being deployed on the frontline”.

Professor Carole Mundell, chief scientific officer at FCO

As she pointed out: “Without high quality education for those students they would not be fit for purpose, but they are going right into our hospitals to deliver medical care.”

Researchers across many disciplines were signalled out by Prof Mundell for thinking creatively, under pressure, to come up with innovative to help the country through the COVID-19 crisis.

“This has crystallised the whole of the business platform and focused on what universities are really for,” said Prof Mundell, who urged university leaders to capture this spirit and inspire their academics to “help to quell some of the stresses and strains that many of our academic colleagues are feeling at the moment, just as they felt during Brexit”.

It should stand the university sector in good stead in the challenging years ahead when our communities emerge from months of self-isolation and other emergency measures.

Capture the spirit

The IHEF annual get-together for the international higher education sector in the UK and beyond proved to be yet another positive example of how universities and others are reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The conference successfully transformed itself into a webinar-type online event within a matter of days after the coronavirus lockdown in the UK. Speakers tuned in by video-link from living rooms and temporary offices across many time zones as countries across the world went into lockdown to avoid spreading the virus.

There are more three more online sessions between 20-24 April. See here for details.

Opening the first day, Prof Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and chair of the International Policy Network of Universities UK, said: “This crisis feels like no other. I honestly think it will change us, and how we operate, teach and do research forever.”

Dramatically reinforcing the message, Professor Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, warned universities to expect at least 12 months of “abnormal conditions” from the pandemic – with at least five years before global student mobility fully recovers.

Marginson said the impact of the coronavirus was expected to last longer in Europe and North America “because of the need to flatten the curve and minimise the casualties” than in East Asian countries which handled the coronavirus differently at the outset.

Your country needs you

Exeter University’s Vice-Chancellor Sir Steve Smith

But before looking in detail at Marginson’s prediction, let’s go  back to Professor Smith’s opening keynote address, in which the Exeter vice-chancellor urged the higher education and research community to start thinking now about  how they could help the country recover when things get back to normality.

“To put it bluntly your country needs you. You can be part of getting the UK back on its feet and play a vital role in helping our towns and cities recover.

“Together with our outstanding research community which is already contributing much to the fight against coronavirus, universities will be essential to broader national prosperity,” he told his web-based audience.

“And through your networks around the world we may have a significant contribution to make to the recovery of other countries.

Transnational Education

“Transnational Education, or TNE, is already a success, but I predict it will become more important as universities think about diversifying the way they reach international students.

“It could well be that the number of students able to travel to us to study is hit significantly by the financial hardships which will inevitably follow the progress of this disease,” said Smith.

Agreeing with the assessment, Professor Shearer West, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Nottingham, which has two campuses in China and one in Malaysia, said the coronavirus crisis could herald a new age for TNE.

Professor Shearer West, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Nottingham

She told the IHEF that they had learnt a lot from having their campus in Ningbo shut down during the coronavirus in China – with academics in both the UK and China crisis-managing while staff and students were forbidden to return to the Chinese campus.

She accepted that the old model of an overseas campus had “began to look a bit rusty and old-fashioned”, but predicted a new lease of life for TNE operations, while drawing on recent COVID-19 experiences managing to continue to educate students online while buildings were closed.

“I now feel they (overseas campuses) will provide us with an asset that in many ways will help through the crisis in globalisation,” she said.

“We may be turning inwards… but global connections are going to be even more important in the future, especially in the arena of international research collaboration.

Five years to recover mobility

Worryingly for global universities relying on a big percentage of their income coming from high fee-paying overseas students, Professor Marginson, who runs the Centre for  Global Higher Education as a partnership of 14 universities with its headquarters at Oxford University, is certain that international higher education is going to take “a massive hit” from the pandemic.

Professor Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education

He predicts it will be at least five years before global student mobility makes a full recovery and says this is “not so much the health factor of the pandemic, which will impact mostly in the first 12 months, but the economic recession that will be associated with it”.

Economists, he said, were suggesting “a possible 10% reduction of global GDP and a very long recovery period – with the greatest impact, both economically and in terms of health issues, in the emerging countries from which we draw many of our students in South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and sub-Sahara Africa”.

Buyer’s market

The major impact will be in English speaking countries which had been used to a supply driven industry taking in “as many students as their visa policies have allowed”, said Marginson, who added: “In the near future, at least, this is going to be flipped around to a buyer’s market, where we will be hunting scarce international students for some years to come.”

Another new factor will be health security becoming a major element in the decision-making of families and students about where they go for education and the way countries handle coming out of the pandemic will be very important for future reputation.

Looking to the new academic year, starting this autumn in the northern hemisphere, Marginson said: “Realistically we are not going to see a return to face to face education at scale. We are looking at a new academic year which is predominately, or wholly online, and I think the situation is likely to persist into 2021.”

Some institutions could decide to become wholly online providers to survive, he suggested.

Quicker East Asia recovery

Marginson said with East Asia recovering quicker medically, one effect will be that there will be more students in the region, but he warned there could be a shift in movement patterns with fewer opting for North America, Western Europe, the UK and Australia – and more deciding to stay closer to home and study in China, South Korea or Japan!

“That effect is likely to be permanent”, said Marginson, who also expects South Asia and sub-Sahara to suffer the most from the impact of COVID-19, with the movement of students out of these countries likely to be slower and their recovery taking longer.

Traditional host countries, like the UK, are going to have to provide a better student experience, including better health security, and more subsidies if they want to compete for international student recruitment students “as the capacity of families to buy into international education on the scale they had is now gone.”

#IHEFonline 2020 has three further sessions

+ Where next? Identifying targets markets for recruitment and collaboration on 20 April, from 2-3pm

+ Managing risk – assessing hidden risks in transactional education operations on 22 April, from 12-1pm

+ Is it possible to have a green international strategy? on 24 April, from 9.30-10,30am


  • This blog is abridged and adapted from my reports from the first sessions of IHEF2020 for University World News

Five years to recover global mobility, says IHE expert

COVID-19 crisis will change HE forever, IHEF hears

Also see

Challenges of student recruitment in the age of COVID-19 by Janet Ilieva and Vincenzo Raimo University World News 28 March