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Universities may have reached ‘peak’ international students


But global teaching delivered online is expected to take off post-pandemic, conference hears

Universities may have reached “peak international student flow”, an international conference has heard.

Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said that problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and growing geopolitical tensions around the world were issues that universities would “have to focus upon in the next short while”.

“I do think we’re going to have to ask ourselves a really tough question about whether we have reached peak international student flow,” he told delegates at Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum 2021 on 14 April. “Covid disruption is clearly a warning to us, but so too is geopolitics…particularly challenges in relation to relations with China.”

Toope highlighted the impact on universities’ budgets if the number of international students fell, and on the UK’s model of “cross-subsidising research endeavours on the back of international student fees”.

But he stressed that global, shared online classes “really should take off” after the pandemic.

“I think we have been far too slow in developing those opportunities in our institutions,” he said. Toope questioned whether universities were “providing adequate support for career-transition learning” among the public and graduates, for example, by offering micro-credentials.

Rocky Tuan, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that there would be a “huge population” of people who would want to retrain after the pandemic, but he warned that universities were not ready for this.

“Universities at this moment, almost I would say most of our universities, are simply not prepared structurally, administratively, for this population. So, if we want to take this very seriously, we are going to have to look straight into our own selves and say, ‘what are we going to do?’”

Elsewhere, vice-chancellor of Australia’s Monash University, Margaret Gardner AC, said that although universities must be wise to the growth of “insecurities” and the potential for foreign interference from partner countries, she stressed that universities are “fundamentally global institutions” and isolationism is “hopeless”.

“You cannot wish those [issues] away; you have to have frameworks for dealing with them, you have to have ways of [establishing] due diligence with partners wherever they come from,” she said.

Research Professional News is an official media partner for Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum 2021.