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Travel, Tech and Testing: What A Year of COVID-19 Means for #HigherEd in 2021

Goodbye 2020, and - as most of us can probably agree - good riddance. In many ways, 2020 was a hard year, but we innovated, we learned how to work from home, we wished we had invested in video conferencing platforms back in January. After all, hindsight is 2020.

Almost a year later, we’re still trying to co-exist with COVID-19. As educators, we’re used to doing the teaching. But what did we learn from this past year? And what can we pretend to expect from 2021? Let’s take a look at the highlights (and lowlights) of 2020:


International education has never had to second-guess it’s ability to be international, or question what would happen if travel simply...went away. Whatever educators, students and staff had planned on in January quickly became irrelevant as borders closed and immigration policy changed overnight. 2020 brought into question the value of an international education from home as staff and students lived from news story to story in anticipation of ever-changing travel restrictions.

Tech, TikTok, and Trump

A tense relationship between China and America was an underlying theme of 2020: July saw the Trump administration attempt to bar international students studying online during the pandemic from remaining in the country causing confusion for the more than 1 million international students in America and leading to its' overturn. In September, the administration tried to ban TikTok and WeChat an action that would've left Chinese students without a reliable connection to home. Unpredictability and America’s response to the pandemic left Chinese students unsure of what their futures in the country might look like.

Recruitment, Re-Imagined

With travel off the table, digital recruitment took off with online fairs, webinars, and internet platforms becoming industry essentials. Admissions staff embraced edtech like never before as conversations shifted to virtual. Building personal connections across timezones meant schools quickly adapted their marketing mix to communicate campus personality virtually.

A Virtual Learning Curve

Technology was a double-edged sword this year as a lifeline and source of frustration. China’s internet restrictions were especially challenging; the inaccessibility of many online platforms was a major obstacle in distance learning.

Although tech advocates were quick to hail digital learning as the future of higher education, students disagreed: the lack of face-to-face interaction, steep decline in social engagement, and perception of not getting their money’s worth were some of the biggest frustrations. 2021 may not bring a perfect substitution for in-class learning, but digital innovation in learning softwares promise an optimistic outlook.


COVID-19 shuttered testing centres and brought a wave of test-optional admissions policies. Chinese students were especially affected as the SAT and many AP-subject tests can't be written from the mainland. As more schools abandoned traditional indicators of student success, almost 50% of early applications received in 2020 arrived without test scores.

Standardized testing welcomed new players: Duolingo’s inexpensive language test could be written and submitted from anywhere, and TOEFL’s at-home ITP Plus for China replaced the iBT test that was unavailable from mainland China. It's unclear if what 2021 will look like for testing, but droves of students are signing up to write standardized tests - just in case.

China as a Destination for International Learning

China’s comparatively swift return to normalcy furthered the country’s potential as a destination country. 16 new British independent schools were scheduled to open in China in 2020, adding to the number of international students in the country that has grown 13% over the past 10 years. While China is ranked third globally (behind America and the UK) in attracting foreign students and higher than any other country in Asia, a domestic return to offline learning and unclear communication about international student re-entry has led to frustration.

Where Do We Go From Here?

With the start of the pandemic a year behind us, looking forward to the uncertainty of 2021 is on everyone’s mind. To get a sense of what 2021 might look like for international and higher education, eduFair spoke with 3 industry experts. Here’s what they had to say about what 2021 might look like:

• Test Optional: Test-optional admissions and schools considering source country's national exams might be here to stay as travel restrictions and the availability of testing affect student’s ability to gain the scores they need for admissions. Chinese students, Allen said, were particularly encouraged by more institutions accepting the Gaokao.

• Online Learning: It’s not for everyone. Allen, a graduate student, enjoyed virtual learning, finding recorded seminars allowed him to better prepare for classes, but was frustrated at paying international tuition rates for a remote experience. He anticipates online learning has a place in the future, in part due to its ability to support the learning needs of second-language learners who may appreciate the ability to prepare before academic discussion.

• Online Teaching: The University of Tennessee Knoxville hired a VP of Online Curriculum, signalling a commitment to future virtual teaching. Stephanie mentioned an increase in schools, especially those with limited online capabilities and resources, outsourcing classes and foundation programs, allowing students to begin studying at home before arriving in-country. Shorelight Education, for example, partners with American universities to bring their curricula to students worldwide, instead of bringing students to campus.

• Virtual Visibility and Digital Recruitment: Many institutions, including The University of Tennessee Knoxville have shifted their recruitment goals from increasing applications towards increasing long-term brand recognition. As students put off study plans and defer enrollments, the recruitment timeline shifted from being based on the application cycle to one that supports long-term student decision making. To ensure this consistent digital presence, Andrew cited the capacity of edtech as essential in international recruitment strategy in 2021.

• Competition: Stephanie mentioned that 2021 may increase recruitment competition. Technology that allows multiple applications saw 30% of high school students applying to 7+ institutions in 2020 and made creating targeted messaging challenging as students became less invested in individual institutions. Virtual learning also means students can choose from millions of programs to study from anywhere in the world, which makes messaging focused on unique academic offerings essential in recruitment success.

• The Future of China as a Source Country: Allen, Stephanie and Andrew all anticipated that Chinese students will prioritize better-fit education choices and cited school's treatment of current international students during COVID as a huge indicator to prospects of how welcoming the campus will be to future students. Stephanie and Andrew predicted digital recruitment platforms that facilitate peer-to-peer interaction will meet the need for open communication to reassure prospects about the reality of student life.

• Chinese Students Studying China: All interviewees mentioned transnational education (TNE) - joint ventures between Chinese institutions and foreign ones - as a growing trend in 2021. China has 28 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities with China-UK TNE operations, a number expected to grow as students seek out in-person, internationally-focused learning that may otherwise be impossible as countries handle the pandemic with varying degrees of success.

Looking Forward

Although 2020 might not have been the year we wanted or planned for, the international education industry has pivoted in ways we’ve never seen before. Prioritizing student success through open information seems to be the key to ensuring future international students are engaged and excited about their next steps - whether from home or on campus. Make this happen on eduFair and across China, ensuring prospects have the information they need to make one of the most important decisions of their lives.



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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