The outbreak of coronavirus has led to exam cancellations, travel restrictions, visa services suspension, and recent school closures, dealing a great blow to international education.
According to UNESCO, over 160 countries have implemented nationwide closures, impacting over 87% of the world’s student population. Several other countries have implemented localized school closures.
Many US colleges and universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, have closed campuses, leaving international students to consider whether to stay in the country which is home to the school or return home.
Dilemmas facing students
Students who have decided to return to China, where several provinces have seen no increase in confirmed cases, have to worry about not only the rise in airline ticket prices and potential infections during the travel but also their academic work, job, and visa.
Zhang Wenhong, director of Huashan Hospital’s department of infectious disease and the Shanghai panel overseeing the treatment of Covid-19, has advised international students to ponder over some questions before deciding to go back to China. “How long will the outbreak last? Whether to return to the foreign country or not? How do you deal with your study and job if the pandemic further spreads for half a year? ” he said.
While for those who decide to stay abroad, he suggested them keeping a physical distance from others, washing hands frequently, and wearing face masks, which can significantly reduce the risk of infection.
During the quarantine period in a foreign country, students may feel isolated, and as the confirmed and death cases grow, fear would also increase day by day. The lack of daily supplies, including food, toilet paper, and face masks, as well as medical resources, would even make their lives worse.
Back to February, when the coronavirus curve rose fast in China, part of countries have issued travel bans to China in response to the virus spread.
Kong Xiaomi, a Chinese student studying preschool education in Australia, found himself stranded in China since the Australian government imposed a travel ban on 1 February.
Beijing Overseas Study Service Association conducted a survey of 100 agencies following the Covid-19 outbreak in China, revealing that 43% of current international students cited blocked entry and exit from China are problems for them.
In mid-February, Australian authorities advised students they could get around the travel ban after spending 14 days outside the Chinese mainland before flying to Australia.
Among 107,000 Chinese students who are banned from entering Australia in time to resume classes in the fall semester, which generally starts in late February or early March, Kong and half of his 70 friends chose Thailand as a transit country to return to Australia.
Kong had to stay at the hotel and learn online courses offered by his school during the quarantine period. He scheduled to return to Australia on 5 March after spending 14 days in Thailand if he can go through the check of Australian authorities.
Xiaomei, another Chinese student who has been applying for Imperial College London this year, was supposed to take her fifth IELTS exam on 1 March if the exam was not canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
A few days after the postgraduate interview, she was informed that she had been waitlisted due to her IELTS score being lower than the minimum requirement. She was required to submit a higher score before enrolling in the advanced degree program.
However, as of today, English proficiency exams such as IELTS and TOEFL have been all canceled from February to April in the Chinese mainland.
"Applicants for UK schools have soared by more than 15% in 2020," Chen Chang, the head of Metro Education, a Zhenjiang, Jiangsu-based study abroad consultant, told JMDedu. “Due to a more stable political environment after Brexit, lower tuition fees, and shorter course length, many international applicants instead choose UK schools.”
UCAS, which operates the application process for higher education in the UK, said 568,330 people applied by the 15 January deadline to start an undergraduate course at a UK university or college this year, an increase of 1.2% since 2019. There were a record 73,080 applicants from outside the EU, primarily driven by a 33.8% increase in applicants from China.
Xiaomei worries most of the increase are applicants for the fall semester in 2020, which will make it more competitive to schedule an IELTS test even if it is resumed by then. She is now planning to do an internship while waiting for exam seats.
Disruptions to international education industry
Many study abroad agencies have struggled to go through the tough year of 2019, but the coronavirus outbreak at the beginning of 2020 would even worsen the situation.
Cancellations of college entrance exams such as the ACT, TOEFL, IELTS, GMAT, and GRE could make prospective applicants defer or abandon their study abroad plans.
At the beginning of the outbreak, two-thirds of agencies predicted that the total number of Chinese students studying abroad would decline this year. Still, meanwhile, more than 60% said they believed that students would not change their overall plan of studying abroad due to the epidemic, according to Bossa.
As China appears to have contained the spread of the coronavirus, cases are surging in other parts of the world. Parents are worried about sending their children to those affected countries and may also want to change their plan.
All courses, operations, and services of his company have been moved online, Lai Han, CEO of GEDU, a Beijing-based study abroad agency told Duozhi, a media focusing on education training. The company's enrollment rate in February has dropped 10 percent year over year. Another leading company in the same industry has already witnessed a 30% business decline.
“The outbreak may accelerate the tendency that both large and small scale companies in the industry will co-exist, but medium scale companies could struggle to survive, ” Bangen Kuaizi (半根筷子), an expert in international education, said earlier this month. “Summer holiday is a vital period for most study abroad agencies.”
He explained, summer holiday represents a busy season for the traditional study abroad industry, and the revenue of July, August, and September can constitute up to 50 percent of the annual income. More problems concerning survival will emerge if the situation has no mitigation until the summer holiday.
He also held a positive attitude towards the demand of studying abroad, believing the consumption would probably soar once the pandemic stops, and the entire industry may not experience snow days even though the virus spreads to other countries. There are now openings available for the fall semesters, August to October, that can host international students. Some of the major host countries are the US, UK, Canada, and Germany. At this point, the virus could be under control, thus not creating a significant impact on study abroad agencies in terms of the number of clients.
Estimated 8.74 million Chinese undergraduates this year, 400,000 up from last year, may meet difficulties in securing a job during economic downturns in 2020, which may also boost the growth of the study abroad market for postgraduate students, he analyzed.
Overseas colleges and universities have also braced for many uncertainties amid virus spread, such as how to deliver online courses during school closures and whether the number of international students will decrease this fall.
Many US colleges and universities, including the University of Washington and Stanford University, have already shut down campuses and opened online classes to students amid virus fear. Several universities have also created guidance to faculty about how to teach via online methods during an emergency.
According to the Boston Globe, Ben Waxman, CEO of International Education Advantage, said in February that US universities are expected to witness a drop in the enrollment rate this fall. He predicted that there might be a more significant financial loss if quarantines in China last several more months and spread to other countries.
As of 27 March, there have been more than 460,000 confirmed cases across 200 countries, areas, or territories, according to WHO. The international education market will face more uncertainties and challenges amid the pandemic outbreak.