International students are torn on whether to study in Britain as universities contemplate virtual classrooms

What attracts students to Britain are its highly collaborative seminars, which may not be possible in the era of social distancing. Getty Images/Sean Gallup
  • The coronavirus pandemic has thrown Britain’s universities into a state of uncertainty.
  • One in five students in the UK is from overseas, and what attracts students to Britain are its highly collaborative seminars, which may not be possible in the era of social distancing.
  • Universities and their surrounding communities are bracing for a massive financial hit.
  • Potential students who are weighing their options; the switch to online-only courses could be an opportunity to cater to students with differing cultural norms.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Much like every other industry, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown uncertainty into the air for Britain’s universities. Students living both in the UK and abroad have raised questions about the viability of travel and study when Britain eventually returns from lockdown.

With one in five students in the UK from overseas, a potential crisis is looming.

Subhash Rao wants to join that cohort of students but is “on the fence” about whether to come to Britain due to the high number of coronavirus cases. Living with his family in India’s southwestern city of Mysore, 21-year-old Rao tells Business Insider that he is having “a tough time deciding on whether or not to pursue the idea of going abroad.”

He’s eyeing a master’s in engineering management at either Birmingham, Greenwich, Nottingham Trent, or Northumbria University.

He’s considering pausing his educational journey because of the prospect of attending online-only courses. For Rao, paying up to £15,000 ($US18,400) in course fees doesn’t feel like a good return for a virtual-only experience. He’s also relying on an educational loan from an Indian bank to fund his British education.

It’s a lot to weigh.

“Paying so much money and attending online classes is rubbish really. But if that’s the case I’d be more than happy todefer=”defer”my offer to the next intake which would probably be in January (2021).”

Rao isn’t alone. In Chennai, Ajith Kumar hopes to study sports physiotherapy at Cardiff University from September. The reliance on physical contact in the course could be impacted by social distancing rules in classrooms.

Cardiff University plans to deposit refunds for international students if they are unable to travel due to continued travel restrictions.

Still, Kumar hopes to arrive in the UK if lockdown is released by the fall.

“The start date of the end of September is a benefit for preparing ahead.”

Cambridge university
The University of Cambridge. Shani Wijetilaka

Virtual learning: revolution or revolt?

Social distancing could leave a lasting impact on the wider university experience, but traditional universities could adapt to new measures by offering online courses.

Twenty-six-year-old Yuliya Chystaya from Belarus is concerned about such a move. She’s concerned that the master’s course in human anatomy she’d like to pursue at Glasgow University in September cannot be done online.

“I have to be in a morgue and access MRI scans,” she said.

“It’s not fair to pay hefty fees and then go online. Students don’t get as much from an online course versus face-to-face. And there’s access to labs and libraries to think about.”

The University of Cambridge on Wednesday became the first British university to publicly announce a cancellation of all face-to-face lectures for the next academic year due to the coronavirus.

It’s a bold decision by the University of Cambridge which could “set a trend for other universities” to follow suit, says Laura Rettie, vice president of global communications at student consultancy firm Studee.

“The knock-on effects could leave a lasting impact. International students may choose not to travel to the UK, student accommodation will be left empty, and the money that students bring to the area will be lost.”

It’s not just the injection of capital international students bring to communities, but a wealth of culture to towns and cities across the UK.

“It’s even more pronounced in smaller towns,” says Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International.

“It’s an important injection; we take multiculturalism for granted in London. In smaller cities people get the chance to become familiar with Indian or Chinese students.”

With travel restrictions in place, social distancing and the potential cancellation of classes, universities face a potential problem of mass deferrals that could hit their finances.

With just under half of the total reported income of UK higher education institutions(£38.2 billion) sourced through tuition fees, mounting concerns from international students could leave a dent in high education finances.

Stern says UK universities are budgeting for up to a 20-per cent decrease in budgets. With a no-deal Brexit also in the wind, a plummet in the number of international students could see Britain’s higher education institutions “financially unviable if the worst predictions are realised.”

Michael Peak, head of higher education systems research at the British Council, believes Britain’s reliance on international students goes beyond tuition fees.

“The longer term value we gain through the networks is they bring the friendships they make… it drives future business opportunities for the UK. It’s difficult to put a figure on.”

What attracts students to Britain are its highly collaborative seminars, a practice not always reflected elsewhere. Valeria Villa completed her masters in politics and international relations from Keele University in 2014. Now back at home in Ecuador, she misses the interactive nature of British courses.

“How the professors thought was unique. Even if they didn’t agree with you they’d listen to you. In Latin America, what the professor says goes,” she said.

Villa says she’d jump at the chance to return to Britain perhaps to study business, even via online courses.

The switch to online-only courses could be an opportunity to cater to students with differing cultural norms too.

“In some educational cultures, it’s not ok to put yourself forward and speak up, jump into a debate or challenge your teachers,” says Stern.

“They will be a revolution in the way online learning is delivered,” she adds.

“It’s taken a crisis to boost institutions that didn’t routinely deliver programs online effectively.”

Jawad Sabra arrived in the UK from Lebanon in 2013 to study a masters in computing science and has since opened a startup helping international students into sponsored jobs in Britain. He believes they should still come to the UK to network and benefit from free time under social gathering restrictions.

“If you’re trying to maximise the value from your course, it doesn’t matter how you receive that content. What matters is that you receive that knowledge, and you acquire industry skills and build your profile,” Sabra said.

Back at the British Council, Peak suggests online courses fit in with the “transnational education” UK universities already have in place.

“It isn’t always just about travelling internationally to study here. It might be studying away for two years and one year at home. This could open minds to new flexible ways. That way students still get international experience, the quality of a UK education, and networks. It’s a different way to approach education.”

Second generation expats in the UAE already study at educational ‘hubs’ without leaving their country for a British education.

“It’s all about opening people’s minds towards adapting to a global pandemic. Perhaps it’s more of a choice.”

What is certain is the stress students now face in making big decisions. Staying in her family home in Belgium, Charlotte Rubin is deciding whether to pursue a scholarship in the US, but has already put down a deposit to study law at the London School of Economics in London.

“If its online, it would be stupid because it’s all debates, which defeats the purpose.”

“Why should I go to the UK when I could ultimately study for free in Belgium and the EU?” Rubin asks.

“The postgrad situation in the back of my mind all the time. The hardest thing is you can’t plan.”

She most certainly isn’t alone.