University partnerships could redress the international student decline


We in the education sector are, for once, in the same boat as everyone else during the coronavirus pandemic.

We are trying to understand the immediate impacts of the virus on how we do business, while also trying to predict and pre-empt what universities will look when the lockdowns end. How will our campuses feel? How will we deliver our programmes? How will we assess our students? How will we plug the financial gap caused by not having international students? How will research be affected?

Looking a little further into the future, will the knock-on effects of Covid-19 mean a wholesale review of all our programmes? Will online be the new norm? What will the inevitable recession mean for publicly funded universities? And are there perhaps – just perhaps – any opportunities that the pandemic offers us?

Over the past decade, we have seen exponential growth in the number of cross-border higher education partnerships between particular universities. This has been celebrated as a way of addressing the internationalisation agenda, enriching the student experience – as well as the staff experience. But differences in scale and governance structures mean that aligning two separate institutions, even under normal circumstances, is a huge undertaking, and effective communication is key. The strengths of these partnerships and the depth of combined strategic vision have never been tested quite so much as in the current crisis.

As we have come to terms with the realities facing us, those of us in strong strategic international partnerships have had a further layer of complexity to address. It is one thing having to sort out your own on-campus students and everything that entails; it is another thing again to do so while adhering to guidelines and directives being established by a partner university for students in a completely different context, in a different country and at a different stage of the pandemic.

For instance, while here in the Gulf, governments went into the initial stages of lockdown, closing schools and universities, in early March, the UK was still nurturing the idea of herd immunity and trying to adopt a business-as-usual approach. This meant that faculty flying from our UK partner institution, Aston University, were arriving to teach in Muscat only to find that campuses were empty and that the shift to online was still in the making. The only viable option for them was to get on the next available plane back to the UK.

A few weeks later, when most countries had stopped on-campus teaching and moved to online delivery (of sorts), the criticality of fast, effective and clear communication was even more evident – even as we were scrambling to offer support to students, adapt material to online delivery, amend assessments and scenario-plan for a completely unknown set of variables in the next academic year. The acid test has been our ability to strike the fine balance between contextualising communication with students so that it is relevant and ensuring that it is timely, correct and does not contradict local and partner regulations.

Those of us operating in the Gulf are probably in a better position than many of our neighbours in the region because student access to the internet is, on the whole, good. Hence, we can hope to continue to deliver teaching whatever Covid-19 throws at us in September. This is definitely not the case everywhere.

But there is a silver lining to every cloud. As we learn to accept that things will not be the same, we will ultimately see that there are opportunities. For universities with international partners, surely the most obvious opportunity must be in leveraging those partnerships to help address the inevitable drop in international student numbers.

Partner institutions can form an excellent stepping stone for students who are reluctant or unable to travel abroad to study. This can be in the form of blended learning, 1+3, 2+2, recognition, matriculation or any other form of arrangement that ensures that students have options.

Flexibly adapting to a changing international market over the next few months could be wise even if it does not offer immediate returns. Going the extra mile in such trying times will bank significant credibility and brownie points with students – and, more importantly, their sponsoring countries – for when times are good again.

Author Bio: Yusra Mouzughi is vice-chancellor of Muscat University, Oman.