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What Students Want: The Value of International Education in the Time of COVID19

Will Chinese students still want an international education if it’s not…well…international? As borders and lecture halls remain closed, administrations fear declining interest from prospective students. Recruiters will have to get creative to tackle an unprecedented challenge: will remote learning diminish the value of an international education?

The value of international education extends far beyond the classroom. Immersion in a second language and culture, connections with students from around the world, and opportunities for work are all hallmarks of studying abroad. Do these benefits translate digitally? If not, how will this impact the value of studying abroad and how can schools continue to support current Chinese students?

On The Clock

While studies have shown that international students have adapted more readily to remote learning than their domestic peers, time zones present a new barrier to access for students as they try to keep up with their classes from the opposite side of the globe.

Many professors have turned to video calls to replace in-person lectures. In order to participate in these calls, students in China may have to resort to living nocturnally. Real-time attendance policies have left international students at the mercy of professor’s willingness and ability to pre-record and share course content.

Specific to China, availability of information presents a hurdle as internet restrictions may impede student access to course materials or make it altogether impossible. UK universities are testing a new digital teaching platform for Chinese students that ensures course material adheres to Chinese internet regulation. Without these supports, Chinese students may find course materials impossible to access, putting them at a disadvantage to their domestic peers.

From Restrictions to Racism: Student Perspectives

eduFair sat down with Chinese students studying in America, both undergraduate and graduate, for an in-depth look at the concerns of Chinese students and families pursuing an international education during a global pandemic.

All of the students we spoke with expressed concern about their schools’ reluctance to close. One was even involved in drafting a petition to her school, urging the administration to respond to the pandemic faster.

America’s reluctance to impose restrictions was a stark contrast to China, where wearing masks was commonplace even pre-pandemic and the death toll remained fairly low compared to that of other countries. As a result, students felt that their academic futures in America would be affected in a way that students’ in China wouldn’t be as Chinese campuses re-open.

Discrimination and anti-Chinese sentiment during the pandemic has been well documented, but students interviewed said the issue wasn't addressed by their schools. Students, applicants and parents worry about safety after reports of race-related violence towards Chinese students while silence from administrations has made students feel vulnerable on the campuses they call home. This may affect application decisions as students seek out welcoming campuses.

One undergraduate student we spoke with is in the process of transferring between schools. She said that while her first, smaller school clearly cared about its international students, her new, larger school has been less accommodating. For the new school year beginning in August, students were given an in-person or remote learning option, but if they decided to study remotely, they were unable to live on campus. They had to decide by June 26th, a timeline that felt restrictive during a time when students were faced with the prospect of returning to campus or relinquishing their visa status altogether.

How Will This Affect America?

It’s no secret that many students dream of studying at big-name schools in America. After working towards this goal for most of their formative years, will they change course?

A recent survey reported that 32% of international students had changed their plans to study abroad. 41% of these changes involved a switch in destination country. America was most adversely affected, with 32% of students surveyed citing the United States as their original destination, a number that fell by 23% after students changed their plans.

Many incoming students are committed to America for a number of reasons: they’ve already sunk an enormous amount of time and money into preparing for the SAT and language testing or have already applied or have received acceptances.

Post-COVID, this could change, according to the owner of a boutique education consultancy in Nanjing. He said that students are questioning if America is a reliably safe destination right now.

America's response to the pandemic and the short-lived #StudentBan, in which the Trump administration told international students they had to leave the country if their school didn't offering in-person classes, has left Chinese students questioning their security in the country.

Several notable schools took issue with the ban, launching lawsuits that saw it rescinded, but not before the damage was done; many saw the move as an indicator of deteriorating US-China relations. Chinese parents, who are key decision-makers, are thinking twice about the welcome their student will face in America, and if it’s a warm one, how long will it last?

The agent we spoke with also said said that top-30 schools in America may not have too much to worry about thanks to strong brand recognition, but mid- to lower-tier schools, might see students looking elsewhere. He cited Canada, Australia, the UK and Singapore as popular alternatives due to safety, their handling of COVID19, and in some cases, their warmer relations with China.

A flowchart made by a Chinese PhD student in America in response to the Trump administration's #StudentBan: source.

Moving Forward

Can we expect to see the same number of Chinese students studying abroad? Most likely. Students report that their overall decision to go abroad has not changed, and the next three years should see Chinese students going abroad at the close to current rates.

Further, Chinese students enrolled at foreign-language or international schools in China prepare for foreign credentials in lieu of the Gaokao, China’s notoriously challenging university entrance exam. If students are unable to go abroad to study, their domestic options are limited.

Ultimately, while Chinese students are still looking towards an international education, institution’s handling of the pandemic, safety, and geopolitical factors will prove to be hugely influential in student destination decisions. While schools can’t change the loss of the immersive experience that being abroad holds, they can continue to provide value by ensuring that their international students feel accommodated and supported while they study online, and welcomed back to campus when it becomes possible.



eduFair China is a free online platform dedicated to international education and recruitment. Its platform connects millions of Chinese students with first-hand information while helping institutions recruit qualified students digitally. eduFair aims to give students a more empowered, holistic approach to international education so that they can succeed during their journey abroad.

Learn more about how eduFair can help you reach students across China.

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