Universities are inherently international institutions. Being able to collaborate and exchange ideas across national borders – whether for research purposes or as a way to enrich the educational experience of all – is an essential aspect of being a university (and one that we sometimes take for granted).
However, we operate in a volatile global landscape where geopolitical and related factors present risks to some of our core activities. Global events can have an impact – sometimes almost overnight – on international relationships, with the effects cascading rapidly to HEIs and their students.
Geo-political factors affecting international student mobility
There are numerous different factors, outside the control of individual HEIs, which can affect student mobility between countries. Sometimes they alter the volume of students flowing out of a particular country, or the volume flowing into another country. Sometimes the effects on global mobility are more widespread and complex.
Changes in national policy, especially those relating to immigration, work rights or fee status, can have a profound effect. We saw this in the UK when the number of Indian students plummeted after the 2012 abolition of the two-year post study work visa; followed by a surge in applications when the new post study work route was announced in 2019.
It’s not just about policies. The mood music is important too. If stories of rising nationalism and racist incidents are reported in both traditional and social media, this makes it difficult for universities to convey convincing messages about the warm welcome that international students can expect.
Back in 2018, a Tweet by a Canadian politician led to the almost immediate withdrawal of scholarships for many Saudi Arabian students in Canada. The US / China trade war has affected flows of Chinese students to the US.
Economic instability, recession and currency fluctuations all have an impact too. The UK tends to benefit when Sterling is weak and tuition fees seem more affordable, but students can face financial challenges if the value of their own currency against the pound deteriorates during the course of their studies.
Then, of course, there are public health emergencies, such as SARS in the early 2000s and the current coronavirus. For higher education, the effect of the latter has been most marked in the southern hemisphere because it has coincided with the start of the new academic year, preventing tens of thousands of students in China from joining their classmates in Australia. Foreign universities with campuses in China also face a significant delay to the start of term.
How can universities mitigate the risks?
All of the above factors are outside the control of universities. However, there are things that HEIs can put in place to improve their resilience in the face of such challenges.
Putting all your eggs in one basket is rarely a good idea and the UK (like Australia) has known for some time that its HE sector is over-reliant on Chinese students and that this is a risky position to be in. That the bubble has the potential to burst at any time is a point driven home by the coronavirus crisis. HEIs need to make strenuous efforts to target a range of established and emerging markets outside China, recognising the importance of building up long-term relationships in strategic locations with future potential, rather than looking solely to those countries which will yield quick returns.
Delivery mode flexibility
As we have seen with coronavirus, Australian HEIs have had to think on their feet about ways they can support their students stranded in China. Many have provided the opportunity to switch to online delivery so that students will not fall behind. It is important not to wait for a crisis to strike before considering different ways of delivering programmes which could rapidly be brought into play in a situation where students cannot be present on campus. The investment is valuable not just for crisis situations, but in order to be responsive to other imperatives (e.g. expectations around inclusivity and reducing carbon emissions).
Agile behaviours and clear communications
Many universities are ponderous organisations with clunky processes for getting new developments or initiatives off the ground. They need to develop agility so that responses to crises (whether that is providing financial support to counter a currency slump or validating alternative delivery modes) are swift and effective. Another important ingredient is clear and open communication with key stakeholders. Universities must recognise that operating effectively in a volatile global context requires an adapted set of behaviours and processes.
Dr Vicky Lewis is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education