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Navigating International Education as Borders Open

John Milne

John Milne

John Milne is Founder and Managing Director of Constellation Group

For families seeking global mobility, securing an excellent education for their children is a pressing concern as doing so brings enormous opportunity. Pre-pandemic, UNESCO reported that the number of international students was 5.6 million and on track to reach over 8 million by 2025. As global student mobility has grown over the last two decades, so has competition among countries vying to attract students. Professionals in International Education reports that in 2020, 20% of international students chose the USA, with the UK and Canada the next largest host countries. While Covid-19 caused disruptions, the drop in international student enrolments was less severe than initially predicted. Now, with borders reopening, many countries are looking forward to welcoming students from abroad.

The pandemic did not dampen interest in studying abroad

Demand for international education remains strong, with a recent Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the College Board report forecasting that the volume of international undergraduate applicants for study places in the UK will increase by 46% to 208,500 by 2026. Informed by insights from a survey of 1,300 students who planned to study internationally, the report found that 77% of international students who applied to the UK during the pandemic did so because of the country’s academic reputation.

University students carrying backpacks walking in a corridor

Motivation differs by nationality, however. Nigerian students are most interested in gaining skills to support their careers (according to 80% of Nigerian respondents), while the most important factor for Indian students is that tertiary education options are of ‘better quality’ than in India (75% of Indian respondents).

Those wanting to study in the USA (57%), Singapore (54%), and the UK (54%) are most concerned about their prospects after graduation, while those aspiring to study in Italy (75%) and the Netherlands (72%) are motivated most by experiencing life in those countries.

As the pandemic recedes in many countries, and the prospect of international education becomes more concrete for many, how can globally minded families navigate the best educational pathway for their children?

Global education today – opportunity and choice

Over the past 20 years there has been a boom in international education. Parents with means worldwide aspire for their children to gain entry to top universities in North America, the UK, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Increasing demand for expert preparation to facilitate access to these institutions led to a proliferation of new international schools. ISC Research, a market insight company specializing in international education, reports that there are now 12,853 international schools teaching in the medium of English — a growth of 60% worldwide in 10 years that shows no sign of slowing, with new schools being opened even during the pandemic.

For families considering international education this offers wider opportunity and choice. However, growth in numbers has not always translated to high quality, especially as a significant proportion of schools have primarily been business ventures, emphasizing profit over teaching quality.

Impact of the pandemic – an unequal experience

The pandemic worked in favor of the schools and universities with the highest quality programs, leadership, and communication strategies. Such institutions thrived as parents and students were reassured. Adaptation to online delivery of teaching and — very importantly — an emphasis on wellbeing at such schools was well managed.

Meanwhile other schools struggled, failing to navigate the pandemic effectively. The outcome is a two-tier system in universities and schools. Centers of educational excellence such as the UK, North America, Europe, and the UAE have collaborated, invested, and taken action, leading to innovate delivery of the curriculum. Elsewhere, we find a host of sub-standard schools now seeking, with some desperation, to re-establish themselves, while others have been sold to large for-profit school groups with the resources to turn around mediocrity, such as the International Schools Partnership and Nord Anglia.

International schools have had to adapt to differentiate themselves further as high-quality schools with global programs. Relevance of the curriculum on offer, both academic and beyond the classroom, has become more important than ever as schools understand the impact on well-being and progress that long periods of disrupted learning and lack of socialization have had on their students. Future employment opportunities, development of character traits such as resilience, teamwork, and compassion, sports and arts programs that contribute to well-being, and globally recognized qualifications such as the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education or the International Baccalaureate offer parents clues to the emphasis top schools now place on the importance of closing gaps in learning and flexing some of the more tired curriculum models.

Established education centers have prevailed

With an emphasis on the future, high schools prepare their students for university study, the world of work, and international global citizenship. For schools which have adapted there has been a marked uptick in quality. And while some schools in emerging regions have become beacons of excellence, the traditional powerhouses of North America, the UK, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand remain the gold standard.

The same is true of universities. Similarly affected by campus closures, they made swift, far-reaching progress in online programs. Now that students are returning to campus, these higher education institutions have planned integrated blended provision so that students have the benefits of social interaction and campus experience while being able to collaborate with students in other parts of the world. This is an exciting development. Professors are now using smart technology to teach students synchronously across campuses, and the use of virtual reality and immersive technology is enabling hands-on experience of practical instruction across many disciplines, even engineering and medicine.

Looking to the future – placing your bet, or planning with purpose

It is a bewildering situation for parents seeking schools that will give the best opportunities and guidance to their children. Many require assistance, particularly if they are ‘first-time buyers’, unaware of how fast the pace of change has been or how competitive international education now is at the top end of the scale.

School entry requirements, visa application issues, logistics of moving families, or paying fees in foreign currencies are not only time consuming and tedious but hold back a student’s progress if mistakes are made. Expertise is on hand, but in an education industry worth billions, agencies specializing in assisting students should be approached with caution. There is little regulation of agents, and families can be exploited by those seeking to re-establish their businesses rather than focusing on clients’ needs.

Planning your child’s future is not a transaction, but an investment. With any investment comes a need for due diligence. When seeking advice, the needs of children should be considered first and foremost to ensure they are matched to institutions where they will thrive academically, personally, and socially. A student who is nurtured, challenged, and supported will be happy and successful, and their families can be reassured that they made the right choice.

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