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Foreign students ditch the West over coronavirus fears

July 2, 2020

Western universities are expecting a massive drop in international student enrollment due to the pandemic. Germany's zero tuition fees, top health care system and coronavirus response could help it weather the storm.

Students in Leipzig
Image: picture alliance/ZB/J. Woitas

The coronavirus pandemic has left many international students in a precarious situation. In the United States and Britain, some students were forced to vacate their dorms as part of measures to stem the spread; incomes from modest part-time jobs suddenly dried up; thousands of young people were left stranded in unfamiliar countries with no roof over their head, no cash and no access to welfare.

Border closures also hampered students' travel plans, and many missed a short window of opportunity to go home. Those that did were unable to return to their host country due to flights being grounded. Students who did make it home sometimes saw their education reduced to sporadic online classes at unsociable hours due to time differences but still had to pay full international tuition fees.

One bitten, twice shy

Despite enormous efforts by universities to adapt to the fast-changing health crisis, the sector expects a huge drop in international student enrollment in the fall. Health, financial and safety fears are said to be putting off many tens of thousands of young people, and the racism leveled at those of East Asian appearance has been exacerbated by US President Donald Trump referring to COVID-19 as the China virus or the "Kung-flu."

Michael Gaebel, Director of Higher Education Policy at the European University Association, which represents more than 800 universities, told DW that student surveys suggested between 25% and 70% of international students might not enroll for the winter semester. "If you put yourself in the shoes of a student from Bangladesh, Thailand or China, there is just too much uncertainty," Gaebel said.

The evaporation of billions of dollars in tuition fees is likely to be most deeply felt by US and UK higher education institutions. After all, international students pay up to $50,000 (€44,300) annually to study in the US and upwards of £10,000 (€11,100, $12,500) per year in Britain. The world's largest economy gets a $45 billion lift by attracting 1.1 million foreign students every year. The UK, meanwhile, sees its coffers boosted by some £21 billion annually by hosting half a million students, including the money they spend into the economy.

Higher education left weakened

Severe revenue shortfalls from the dearth of overseas students could potentially weaken both countries' higher education sectors. Several universities are already planning to cut degree programs; many have slashed investment in technology and shelved infrastructure projects. Huge job losses across the sector are also predicted. American universities have already cut or furloughed more than 48,000 staff, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. A study commissioned by the UK's University and College Union predicted that the higher education sector could see 30,000 job losses as a result of the funding gap.

European countries, however, could be spared the worst of the student snub. Most EU states levy much lower tuition fees for overseas students — most German states don't charge anything. "Most higher education institutions in Europe are publicly funded. While I can't say there will be no budgetary consequences, they are not there immediately," Gaebel told DW. Many universities boosted spending at the height of the pandemic to move more of their curricula online and will likely require additional teaching staff going forward to meet social distancing requirements for smaller classes.

Foreign students in Zwickau, Germany
The West Saxon University of Applied Sciences in Zwickau, Germany, has been quite successful in attracting foreign students — and hopes to welcome even more in the futureImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

Opportunity for Germany

The US and UK have traditionally dominated the market due to the demand for English language tuition and the perceived quality of their education systems. With more European universities offering courses in English, the likes of Germany and France are catching up fast. Ten years ago, Germany attracted around a quarter of a million students from abroad. By 2019, the figure had grown by 58% to 393,579.

Germany could also get a boost from students comparing how countries responded to the pandemic. Washington and London's efforts have been widely criticized as falling short, while Germany received praise for its speedy and widespread testing, efficient health care system and a low death toll. This trust could boost the country's ability to attract more foreign students.

"It's been said for years; why pay 30,000 pounds when you can have a study program of good quality from a renowned and internationally-ranked university for free?" said Gaebel.

Germany's universities are also set to benefit from Britain's departure from the European Union. A survey by the platform Study EU suggests that up to 84% of EU students would "definitely not" study in the UK if tuition fees rise to the level for international students. Currently, EU nationals pay the same as domestic students. Germany would be the most popular alternative destination after the Netherlands, according to the poll of more than 2,000 students.

Germany, however, still needs to overcome several hurdles, including the speedy processing of applications and student visas, which is likely to remain a challenge with many embassies still closed or working limited hours. Authorities have extended the application deadline for international students by more than a month until 20th August.

Labor market discrimination

Another issue is the discrimination foreign graduates face in the German labor market, compared with the US and the UK which are seen as more flexible. Despite having domestic qualifications, international graduates complain about the difficulty of finding well-paid work in Germany. Currently, those from non-EU countries can extend their residence permits for up to 18 months to find work. But several Anglo-Saxon countries offer longer "find work" visas.

Although the German government has offered small grants to help overseas students through the health emergency and has waived the interest on living cost loans until next March, many young people are hesitant to apply for them, insisting that the disadvantages they already face could be exacerbated by higher unemployment.

"Students don't want to take these loans because they don't know if they'll be able to get a job in Germany to pay it back," Kumar Ashish, chair of the Federal Union of International Students in Germany, told DW.

Ashish predicts Germany will still see a "huge fall" in international arrivals for the winter intake but noted that students and their parents were increasingly impressed by Germany's academic offering. He said the drop could be mitigated by an easing of the visa process and the provision of grants to help international students with the "very high" living costs, compared to their home countries.

Shutdowns hurt foreign students