Planning overseas college education amid pandemic

Furthering studies abroad may still prove a good investment in these turbulent times

An empty campus at Georgetown University, closed weeks ago due to the coronavirus, on April 3. College administrators in the US are increasingly fearful that their schools may not reopen for the autumn semester.
An empty campus at Georgetown University, closed weeks ago due to the coronavirus, on April 3. College administrators in the US are increasingly fearful that their schools may not reopen for the autumn semester. PHOTO: REUTERS

Going to university is usually something of an adventure, but these days, it seems to be more about crisis management.

Take the Singaporean mother trying to persuade her daughter to defer her studies in the United States until the coronavirus crisis is over.

Or the Chinese student in Wisconsin who recently begged her wealthy father to buy her a 180,000 yuan (S$36,000) seat on a private jet home to Shanghai amid mass flight cancellations.

And the undergraduate who is exploring ways to continue her British university degree in her home city of Hong Kong instead.

Around the world, international students and their parents are weighing their options as the pandemic wreaks havoc like never before on the overseas university education business.

Colleges have been closed, admissions exams called off and enrolment plans scuttled. Universities - many of which rely heavily on revenue from their foreign intakes - are being pushed to the brink.

How will the crisis change the sector in the long run?

College administrators in the US are increasingly fearful that their schools may not reopen for the autumn semester.

Credit ratings firm Moody's has already downgraded its outlook for the higher education sector in the country to negative, citing widespread instability and unprecedented enrolment uncertainty.

British universities are bracing themselves for hundreds of millions of pounds in losses as foreign students cancel or delay their studies.

Top colleges in Australia expect to miss out on US$2 billion (S$2.85 billion) in fees alone.

Major university entry exams have been scrapped, including the International Baccalaureate, Cambridge Assessment International Education's International General Certificate of Secondary Education and the standardised SAT, affecting students in more than 150 countries.

As these exams are typically required for international admissions into Western universities, the knock-on effect means that those planning to study abroad are set to miss application deadlines and may postpone their studies or opt to go local.

In the US, China accounts for a third of money spent by international students on tuition, fees and living expenses, dwarfing all other countries. Almost 400,000 Chinese students were enrolled in American universities last year, according to official data.

Tens of thousands of the 200,000 or so Chinese students who study in Australia were affected when the new academic year started in February amid a travel ban on flights from China.

In Britain - with nearly 140,000 students from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, and 8,000 from South Korea and Japan - a 10 per cent fall in enrolment from these regions will result in at least £200 million (S$352 million) of losses in tuition fees alone, the Guardian newspaper reported.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Many institutes sustain a micro-economy of their own, with entire university towns dependent on revenue from their student populations. From housing providers to catering services, bookshops and cafes, any fall in foreign intake will hurt not just the universities but also surrounding businesses. Some may not be able to hold out until the situation improves.

Dr Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at King's College London, told The New York Times: "We have become sort of addicted to one source of income. If the worst case happens and Chinese students don't want to come (to Britain) in September, it's potentially a kind of seismic change."

To add to the woes of the higher education sector, many colleges are already losing out on income from holiday programmes, sports camps and other normally lucrative events now cancelled amid widespread lockdowns.

On top of that, a global recession will likely bring a drop in state support, research grants and private funding for universities. Falling financial markets have also hurt their endowment returns.

To be sure, an overseas education is still a highly sought-after opportunity that many are not likely to give up in the face of what appears to be a temporary health crisis.

Singapore-based college counsellor Kevin Sim said: "Part of the desire to pursue education abroad is also about preparing for a future where issues like pandemics are part of living in an interconnected world. The upcoming university application cycle is for entry for the fall 2021 academic year in September, so there should still be enough time for fears about Covid-19 to abate."

Mr Scott White, a retired guidance director for more than 20 years at Montclair High School in New Jersey, sees it differently.

"I would tell kids: Number one, the likelihood of having face-to-face classes in September is pretty darned small," he told Bloomberg.

"You're not going to get 65-year-old college professors going in," he said, referring to older people's higher risk of succumbing to the disease.

Still, pre-tertiary students told Invest that the pandemic will not influence where they ultimately choose to study.

Singaporean Andrea Ho, 18, who was recently accepted into Georgetown University in Washington, said: "We've poured so much effort into our college applications: researching colleges, networking with admissions officers, studying for the SAT, churning out essays, compiling financial aid documents and sitting for interviews. I knew from a young age that I wanted to attend college in the US. It doesn't make sense for us to abandon years of planning at the last minute because of something we can't control."

Singaporean Andrea Ho, who has recently been accepted into Georgetown University, with her mother Shirley Tey, who is cautious about the teen going overseas before the pandemic is brought under control.
Singaporean Andrea Ho, who has recently been accepted into Georgetown University, with her mother Shirley Tey, who is cautious about the teen going overseas before the pandemic is brought under control. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANDREA HO

Parents tend to strike a more cautious tone, however, sharing plans to persuade their children to take a gap year or to enrol in local institutes with overseas tie-ups instead.

Andrea's mother Shirley Tey, 46, a housewife, said: "The coronavirus may be temporary, but what could occur in some countries as global recession sets in is social unrest. That's what I'm most concerned about."

A parent based in Hong Kong, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Chong, said she was mentally prepared to keep her two daughters at home attending their university classes online for as long as it takes until the crisis is resolved in Britain and the US, where they study.

Colleges have been scrambling to come up with coping strategies.

US universities, including Harvard and Princeton, plan to prorate room and boarding costs for students forced off campus due to the outbreak. Cornell has dropped SAT scores for next year's admissions.

British universities are planning to delay entry of new Chinese students until next January.

But while the schools have so far been more focused on finding solutions for their most immediate problems, they also need to cast an eye on the bigger, more long-term issue of how to restructure their business to ensure greater sustainability under such circumstances.

The University of Virginia is one such college with an eye on the future. Ms Senem Ward, the university's associate dean and director of international admission, said: "Among the issues that our university is now strictly focused on include ensuring the quality of education being delivered, in a different format, as our faculty steps up to the challenge of our new reality."

Being able to guarantee a consistent standard of education even in the absence of traditional classroom lessons and face-to-face interaction may make all the difference as potential students can be assured of a smooth transition to different forms of learning under uncertain global circumstances.

The University of Virigina is one US college that is keeping an eye on how to restructure to ensure greater sustainability when faced with difficult circumstances. PHOTO: SANJAY SUCHAK, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS

Universities could also look into stronger differentiation of their courses and improving the overall quality of the education they offer.

In the post-coronavirus world, the standard and rigour of university courses could hold even greater sway in tilting parents towards taking the risk of sending their children abroad to further their studies.

There is a silver lining too - tertiary-level enrolment tends to rise in recessions as opportunity costs go down. It may become more worthwhile to invest in higher education, which can reap longer-term benefits, than to save the money or plant it into volatile financial markets.

Fresh graduates faced with fewer jobs and lower starting salaries may also find greater incentives in postponing work and taking up further studies if their families can afford it.

As the pandemic takes its toll, colleges may eventually have to shed some loss-making sub-businesses, but could also capitalise on offering a wider range of online learning opportunities to a whole new segment of people now stuck at home with plenty of time on their hands.

Ultimately, the universities that can adapt the fastest to our new global reality are those that will be best able to ride out the storm.

The challenge facing the higher education sector calls to mind a popular meme circulating online in the form of a multiple-choice survey: "Who kick-started the biggest transformation of your business? The CEO, CTO or Covid-19?"

We can all guess the answer.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline Planning overseas college education amid pandemic. Subscribe