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Why did/n’t they leave?: Understanding international postgraduate students’ (im)mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Picture by Matt Antonioli on Unsplash.

The uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic instigated significant responses from the Higher Education (HE) community on all levels globally. Particularly noteworthy are the reactions of international students. With state borders closing, and programmes quickly transitioning online, these individuals were hastily forced to decide whether to stay in the country of their educational institutions or return home. But what exactly prompted some students to leave, while others opted to remain? How might we understand the journeys of those that rushed home – to all corners of the globe – amidst the pandemic? Moreover, what do the decisions of international postgraduate students tell us about the future of educational migration and HE more generally? 


In uncovering the motivations and experiences behind international students’ reaction (im)mobilities between March and August 2020, our project explores the impacts of the pandemic for HE, specifically within the context of the UK. While many HE sectors rely on international students, the UK is cited as being more open and welcoming than other competitor markets. London remains a popular destination for international students with approximately one-third of all international students in the UK studying in the capital. Accordingly, we surveyed 113 international postgraduate students attending 17 different HE institutions in London during the 2019-20 academic year. The respondents represented 46 nationalities (28% EU) and 25 postgraduate programmes (27% PhD and 73% Masters). 


The UK Higher Education sector


International postgraduate students make an important contribution to the UK’s economy and the financial viability and academic life of many HE institutions. In the 2018-19 academic year, for example, there were more than 217,000 international postgraduate students in the UK, representing some 45% of full-time postgraduate students (55%, including EU students). In London alone, HE institutions attract approximately 120,000 international students annually and contribute £1.4 billion in tuition fees. These institutions support approximately 172,000 jobs and generate nearly £17 billion annually in goods and services. According to London Higher, even a 10% decrease in income from overseas students’ fees in London would result in an annual loss of more than £190 million.


Reasons for educational migration


Previous literature has highlighted various ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors in international educational migration. The ‘pushes’ include course availability and accessibility in home countries, and knowledge and awareness of the host country. While ‘pulls’ include historic/linguistic links, social conditions in the host country, existing migrant networks, and host government preferential policies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the influence of a global health crisis has not been greatly considered in previous literature. 


We therefore conducted a survey to uncover how COVID-19 affected international educational migration. Our findings point to the simple cost-benefit equation:


educational migration = student experience > tuition fees


As our respondents outlined, the ‘student experience’ is composed of the intangible benefits of living abroad: in-person networking with potential employers and collaborators; friendships with peers; jobs and internships; travel opportunities; international conferences and workshops; access to libraries, archives, and museums; inter-cultural exchanges; and other opportunities that broaden one’s horizons – as cliché as it sounds.*


Most of our respondents did indeed believe the experience of studying in London outweighed its costs. In fact, less than half stated it was very necessary to be in London for their programme, yet 75% indicated it was very important for their student experience. As one respondent expressed: ‘[t]he best part of my masters experience was not the actual teaching but living in London and making friends’. Another respondent agreed that their degree was useful not because of the classes, but ‘everything around (work experiences, internships, networking opportunities in person, the London life)’. In this way, the intangible benefits appear more significant than the real costs associated with studying abroad. 



The fact that only half of our participants stayed when London shut down and classes moved online demonstrates the importance of the larger student experience. Students that left were motivated by institutions closing facilities, conference cancellations, and the lack of socialisation and networking opportunities. Importantly, students that remained also cited these factors when explaining the effect of the pandemic on their studies. Border closures, flight availability, and concerns about personal health and safety also rated highly as reasons why students left. Perhaps surprisingly, lost job opportunities and warnings from national governments to ‘come home’ did not feature as important considerations.


Among the students who stayed in London, the most cited explanations include home country governments struggling to adequately address the pandemic, fear of contracting COVID-19 while travelling, and the need to protect family members at home. Most notably, several respondents mentioned the importance of their student community in London for staying, both in terms of having a physical network in the city and for providing motivation to continue their studies. One student asserted that ‘staying helped provide limitations to distractions and structure to [their] deadlines’. Many respondents also said that they did not have an appropriate working environment at home, so staying in London was a better place to complete their programme. While the reduced student experience appears to have ‘pushed’ many international students to return home amidst the pandemic, the bare minimum evidently proved enough to ‘pull’ others to remain.


Future of the UK HE sector


What does this mean for the UK’s HE sector in light of the ‘new normal’ delivery model? As one respondent indicated: ‘I don't think I could justify the incredibly high cost for mostly online material’. Many others echoed these sentiments, asserting that as international students, the same tuition for virtual classes is ‘not worth it’. Another succinctly wrote: ‘[g]etting to know my classmates was one of the most valuable parts of the course, and that happened during coffee breaks, chats between lectures, etc. I don't think you can build the same sort of new connections and friendships if you just click on a link to watch a lecture… it won't be the same’. So the student experience appears to carry great weight in international students’ decision-making for educational migration. 


Going forward, then, universities and governments globally must consider the intangible benefits of educational migration whilst simultaneously recognising the socio-economic costs of a potential decline in international student enrolment. Although generalisations cannot be conclusive, HE sectors in countries heavily reliant on international students, particularly the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK, will need to answer some difficult questions and engage in creative thinking about how to approach, and even ensure the viability of, HE education in the ‘new normal’ within which we now live. 


*  We would not be writing this article had we both decided not to pursue our doctoral studies in the UK or returned home during the pandemic.

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Marnie Howlett

Marnie Howlett is a Canadian PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Her research interests include political geography, cartography, and nationalism. Find Marnie on Twitter @marnie_howlett.

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Dean Thompson

Dean Thompson is an Australian lawyer and PhD candidate at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School for Advanced Study. His research interests include migration law and policy particularly as they relate to irregular migration and migrants.

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