Learning from the richness of diversity: There is a future for international education post-COVID-19

Banner image: Shutterstock/Nuno21

Like Comment

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

Join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts to share your own stories, ideas and expertise in the comments.


Undoubtedly, this is a challenging time for universities and students globally.

Different countries have taken different approaches to the pandemic, and the consequences of these decisions are playing out as we speak.

In Australia, we’re lucky the public health crisis has been less acute than in other countries. Our closed borders have brought enormous benefits – admittedly along with some significant costs.

Our prime focus at this time has been on the well-being of our community, both here and overseas. But universities have also been justifiably concerned about the ability of our current international students to return to Australia, and future students choosing Australia as their study destination.

Read the latest OECD publication: The Impact of COVID-19 on Education: Insights from education at a glance 2020 by Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills

At the University of Sydney there are 17% fewer international students than we had originally expected this year – a much smaller reduction than we had anticipated at the onset of the pandemic.

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by our stronger than expected enrolment figures – and the loyalty shown not only by our existing students, but also by those who have decided to start with us even though they can’t get here yet. This semester, 40% of our international students are studying with us remotely, from countries including China, India and the United States.

Overseas study remains compelling

Fundamentally, students choose to study abroad because their international education prepares them for the jobs of the future and differentiates them in a crowded job market.

We don’t take it for granted, but we’re currently seeing no evidence that students no longer want to study overseas, and we’re encouraged by their continued faith in Australia’s higher education offer.

Taking a leap to study overseas is a courageous first step in the journey of becoming a global citizen. Students who come to our university have the opportunity to interact with peers and staff from 130 different nationalities. They develop the skills to think critically, and to communicate, negotiate and excel in and across diverse teams. Every day we see how exposure to different perspectives makes our students’ educational experience richer. Our students, both domestic and international, have their horizons broadened and learn how to work with people from different cultures.

Australia’s proximity to Asia and our multicultural society has perfectly positioned us to attract international students from across Asia and the subcontinent. For the past two decades, international students have grown by an average of 4.8% per year, and students from Asia accounted for most of that growth making up 57% of all international students across the OECD in 2018.

Read the Highlights from our “Schooling in Times of COVID-19” OECD Forum Virtual Event on the Forum Network

And Australia stands shoulder to shoulder with the best universities globally in terms of quality and outcomes. Amazingly, just under a third of our universities are listed in the Times Higher Education top 200 universities globally, compared to around one-fifth of all United Kingdom universities. Similarly, while United States institutions such as Harvard top the list, only 6% of America’s four-year colleges feature in this top 200. The University of Sydney is ranked fourth in the world in the 2020 QS Graduate Employability Rankings, outperforming Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom as well as Harvard, New York University and Yale.

Reasons for hope

We don’t take it for granted, but we’re currently seeing no evidence that students no longer want to study overseas, and we’re encouraged by their continued faith in Australia’s higher education offer.

While none of us would have wished it, the pandemic has also allowed us to explore more quickly and with more depth aspects of online teaching and learning.

More on the Forum Network: Move over. We are adding a seat to the table by Rahul Pallan, Y7 Delegate 2020/21, Young Diplomats of Canada

We’ve learnt valuable lessons to improve our online education and received positive feedback from students after their first semester of studying online, with student satisfaction scores for units of study higher than they were this time last year. We’re determined to continue to learn from this experience to create a more blended approach, and it will change how we teach in future.

But we will not become an online-only provider. We plan to provide our international students remote learning options for as long as it is necessary, but for our students there will always be a place for face-to-face teaching and the community that develops around a campus.

Nevertheless, we can’t rely on the loyalty of our students for too long; they will increasingly need some certainty around when they’ll be able to arrive in Australia to continue their studies.

The motivation of students to pursue international education has not changed – and as long as governments and universities remain agile, I am optimistic that international education will evolve and come back stronger than ever.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Education & Skills

Whether you agree, disagree or have another point of view, join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts and tell us what's happening where you are. Your comments are what make the network the unique space it is, connecting citizens, experts and policy makers in open and respectful debate.

Tania Rhodes-Taylor

Vice‐Principal, External Relations, University of Sydney

Tania Rhodes‐Taylor joined The University of Sydney in 2017 as the University’s first Vice‐Principal, External Relations. Tania is the strategic lead for externally facing activities and has direct responsibility for the University’s engagement with industry and community, Marketing and Communications, Media and Public Relations, Museums and Cultural Engagement, Events and Student Recruitment, Admissions and Mobility. Prior to joining The University of Sydney, Tania was Director of Marketing and Communications at Queen Mary University Tania has previously worked in the corporate and government sectors in the UK, USA and Asia before moving to work for government agencies and, since 2007, within the higher education sector.

1 Comment

Go to the profile of SERGIO DI TILLIO
SERGIO DI TILLIO about 1 month ago

Tania, many thanks for the compelling piece.

I agree on the fact that "Different countries have taken different approaches to the pandemic, and the consequences of these decisions are playing out as we speak." is the point. 

Regards

Sergio