With over 10.9 lakh Indians studying abroad in 2019, India is now the second largest source of international students in the world. The ‘study abroad experience’ has traditionally been valued for a combination of benefits such as superior educational content, the international living experience, opportunity to create diverse and global networks, job opportunities abroad, and a strong credential to carry on CVs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost all of these areas, putting pressure on universities’ ability to deliver these benefits in a ‘physically distant’ world. This may very well be a blessing in disguise. Universities presently operate using centuries-old pedagogic and business models and, consequently, are now out of touch with what international students want. In a post-coronavirus world, attracting international students will require universities to reconnect with their students and understand what they care about.
What do Indian students want?
We spoke to a number of Indian students to understand their concerns. In addition, we ran a survey with more than 300 Indian applicants, who have applied to UK universities, to more systematically capture these concerns, and ways of mitigating them.
Among our findings, three things stood out.
International work experience, post-study work visa are key concerns
Our findings showed that studying abroad is a gateway for Indian students to get international work experience. For respondents in our survey, securing a post-study work visa, and obtaining some international work experience form two very important factors in choosing where to study. Indeed, 77 percent of students in our survey told us that this is one of their primary reasons for choosing the UK as a study destination.
Following a period of uncertainty, it is now becoming clearer that the new ‘Graduate Immigration Route’ will be available to eligible students graduating from the summer of 2021. But countries that have not been clear about a post-study work visa and have a negative rhetoric around immigration, for instance, the United States, are likely to suffer on enrolments.
Value for money
As the partially erroneous news of Cambridge University conducting all lectures online next year was reported by the media last week, it shocked both current and potential students. Their disappointment is understandable; students tend to enjoy classroom learning more than online learning. Echoing this, respondents of our survey mentioned the lack of classroom experience and not having access to university infrastructure as major reasons for disappointment, should they be unable to travel to the UK to study. More than 80 percent of respondents said they would not accept their offer if learning for the entire next year moved online. However, this number reduces to around 55 percent if there is an initial period of online learning followed by on-campus teaching, and crucially, if the fees are accordingly discounted.
About half the respondents in our survey rated the global ranking of the university or the department as being the single most important factor in determining their choice of country. This suggests that after a temporary short-term fall, elite universities may escape relatively unscathed and continue to enjoy their price inelasticity.
What’s next for universities?
Many international universities have done a commendable job in responding to the immediate disruptions caused by global lockdowns, by rapidly moving to online teaching. But immediate steps aside, the COVID-19 crisis may have triggered a fundamental change in the university business model; allowing universities across the spectrum an opportunity to redefine the higher education offering.
For Indian universities, the post-COVID-19 world may offer a more level playing field. As travel restrictions and safety concerns become important considerations among students, innovative Indian universities can try and wean some students away from international destinations.
Paradigm shift needed
In order to be successful, education providers need to undergo a paradigm shift in approach – they need to move from having a transactional product-based approach favouring standardisation to a solutions-based approach — one that focuses on providing a learning experience which facilitates the unique outcomes that students desire. Universities would do well to consider launching programmes that can combine education from globally renowned universities, international work experience, and a hybrid of online and on-campus learning in flexible ways.
For example, universities may come up with blended programs where part of the programme takes place online in a student’s home country; while the other part requires students to work in an international organisation, online or in-person. Integrating placement modules into the programme, which some schools already do, should become more common. Specialist courses focused on high demand areas such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Medical Coding, Data Science, and Cyber-security, can especially benefit from partnerships between industry and academia. Moreover, a hub-and-spoke model where foreign universities create smaller satellite campuses around the world that provide their international students physical socialisation and classroom spaces in their home countries is likely to be a good alternative to a fully residential programme abroad or a fully online programme.
Given the importance of international work experience in choosing to study abroad; Indian universities can attract domestic students by providing a global experience, such as by facilitating internships abroad, or partnering with large organisations for work-based learning. Similarly, they could create joint degree programs with foreign universities where part of the teaching takes place abroad, allowing students a taste of the international classroom experience that they want.
Finally, government involvement will be critical. The government has a role to play both in protecting the health and safety of their students abroad (about 61 percent of our respondents said that safety is an important concern for them); as well as in ensuring that any joint degree programs are recognised by both countries. Developing bilateral agreements to address these with the top destinations for Indian foreign students will help in fueling innovation in this sector.
As the world adapts to a new normal, universities must take urgent steps to ensure that they remain attractive. Even though their immediate focus has been on firefighting, they now must consider redefining their value proposition, leveraging this disruption and technology to create a new offering altogether.
Kamini Gupta is a social scientist and a lecturer at King’s College, London. Her research looks at the social outcomes of business, focusing especially on India. She tweets @dr_kaminigupta. Sanam Arora is the founder and chairwoman of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK; Strategy Consultant specializing in Investment Management, and Higher Education. She tweets @arora_sanam