International Higher Education. Emerging Digital Models.

New possibilities and ideas are helping to re-envision how international higher education might look post-COVID.

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COVID abruptly halted global student flows, causing chaos for students, governments and international education providers. Innovations and new models are emerging, however, which offer signals about the ways in which the international higher education market could evolve.

Webinar 5 of 6 in our Higher Education Digital Transformation series recapped pre-COVID outbound and inbound student flows between countries, explored some key digital and structural trends, and built a picture of the increasingly complex models and moves in the sector. Explore highlights below and as always, we invite you to listen in to the webinar recording for further insights and expert commentary.

Digital Capabilities for International Higher Education

Digital transformation in international education demands strong digital capabilities across all Dimensions along the HEDC learner lifecycle. With pressure on student recruitment and shifting business models, all four Domains in ‘Demand and Discovery’ are in focus, from product strategy through to enrolment management. Student experience and employment outcomes are also high priorities in international education, requiring a re-think of digital capabilities in the ‘Learner Experience’ Dimension as well as work-integrated learning and career planning domains.

International Higher Education Student Flows

Pre-COVID, nearly five million international students studied overseas each year. In November 2019, data showed demand had been strong and was generally expected to continue. Among other driving factors, international students have been motivated by perceptions of superior educational outcomes overseas, greater prestige and paths to employment. Meanwhile, institutions in destination countries have benefited from largely unregulated tuition pricing for international students (US public universities, UK, Australia, Canada), making up for falling public funding for universities in the US and UK especially. Take a look back at our interactive map of UNESCO’s 2018 student flows data and explore this complex landscape.

Digital and structural trends: learners, universities and governments

At the broadest level, COVID-19 is expected to leave a lasting impression on patterns of consumption, not just from the perspective of consumers themselves, but also in how each industry responds and through the actions of government. The experiences, actions and reactions of these three stakeholders are particularly important in the education sector and will determine the extent to which a shift to digital – whether fully or in part – is likely to ‘stick’.

Reports of international students’ experiences online over the last year have been mixed. Across a range of global data sources, almost 70% of students report positive experiences with the quality of online and digital learning, yet at the same time, some HE student experience ratings recorded an average 10% decline between 2019 and 2020.

Innovation in international education models and delivery options has accelerated through COVID-19, with changes such as online pathways to university being established and universities partnering with MOOC providers to offer online ‘taster’ programs. Students can choose to start online and transition to in-person study or vice versa, whilst models for transnational learner support are expanding to offer managed in-country learning hubs. Virtual internships and transnational job outcomes are reducing some of the geographical constraints to employment opportunities around the world.


Governments, meanwhile, have responded to the changing global environment in different ways. US-China relations have been impacting international education, but there are positive signs following administration change. In Canada and the UK, post-study work rights have been a strong feature of policy, whilst the UAE has extended eligibility for its 10-year golden visa program. In China, meanwhile, favourable policies have seen significant growth of international students seeking degrees in the country, and India announced new policies to facilitate international branch campuses.

Models and Moves: The Spaghetti landscape

Intled-Spaghetti Landscape

The landscape of international education has been evolving over time, creating complex connections between students, universities and the plethora of other players in the international space. Students rarely interact with a university alone, but deal with immigration and regulation, education agents of all shapes and sizes, pathways providers and language learning, transnational models, MOOCs, aggregators and employers. The digital platform and partnership landscape has evolved alongside this, filling gaps and challenging traditional approaches at every turn.

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What’s Next?

The Higher Education Digital Transformation Webinar Series concludes with an overview of three scenarios for Higher Education in 2025 and discussion of the drivers and signals that lead in each direction.

Join us for this final webinar in the current series by registering below.

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Where is this data coming from?

HolonIQ is the world's leading impact intelligence platform. We support governments, institutions, firms and investors, with data insights to power decisions that matter. If you are not already a client, request a demo to learn more about our platform.
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