COVID-19 affects international enrollment, experience in higher education, experts say

COVID-19 International House UC Berkeley Campus Conversation
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The Berkeley Conversation series hosted a livestream Thursday to discuss differing opinions regarding COVID-19’s effect on international higher education.

According to Margaret Heisel, senior associate at the campus Center for Studies in Higher Education, or CSHE, international students have greatly benefited UC Berkeley’s budget, which still has not completely recovered from the 2008 recession. International student enrollment has grown very steadily and rapidly in the past 20 years, but in the last few years, this enrollment has decreased. When looking to the fall, greater decreases due to COVID-19 are very likely, Heisel added.

“This disruption presents us with a real opportunity, an opportunity for change and improvement,” Heisel said at the event. “Rather than struggling to preserve the structures we have built in the last 20 years, we ought to seek to reconceptualize international university activities, taking into consideration perhaps new technology and national relationships.”

Tim O’Brien, senior vice president of international higher education organization INTO University Partnerships, said the disruption in international enrollment could cause competition for foreign students to be “significantly more intense,” due to the smaller pool of applicants.

According to Rajika Bhandari, CEO and president of the International Career and College Counseling Institute, it is in universities’ interests to ensure that international students continue to be attracted to the United States, which can be done through “stellar” higher education and by providing opportunities after graduation. 

Bhandari also addressed the appeal of in-person classroom environments, adding that the students to whom she has spoken see online instruction as a “Band-Aid.”

“There is a huge difference between studying online versus being on campus. One gives you information and knowledge, and the other gives you a true education and has the potential to be transformative,” Bhandari said at the event. “We can’t shape global citizens and enable education diplomacy through ‘Zoom University,’ but we can certainly do so through institutions like UC Berkeley.”

According to Hans de Wit, director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, top research institutions will see little difference in their foreign student enrollment, but smaller private institutions will face a larger effect. Institutions need to improve rather than hit the “reset button” when there is an opening to resume normal instruction, de Wit added.

CSHE senior researcher Igor Chirikov, who moderated the event, ended the livestream with a question about the role of technology in the current education system.

According to Bhandari, learning tactics and in-person instruction do not transfer exactly to an online model. This model does, however, have the potential to heighten awareness in how technology can increase quality of learning, which de Wit said needs to be focused on.

He added that students must be much more interactive with faculty and other students online, regardless of location, which will improve the remote learning process.

“If that is going to happen, then it has a very positive effect on higher education quality,” de Wit said at the event. “If it is going to be that we have to replace one thing with the other, then it will have disastrous effects.”

Contact Marie Bellevue at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MarieBellevue_DC.