The US higher education sector “will lose at least” $3 billion as a result of the coronavirus crisis, a national association has warned, with losses driven mainly by tumbling international enrolments across the country.

The Covid-19 pandemic will cost US universities dearly, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which surveyed leaders across the country’s $520 billion higher education sector in April.

It found that universities had already collectively spent around $638 million on “financial support” for international students, scholars, faculty and staff who remained on campuses when courses were moved online earlier this year.

Education-abroad programmes, whereby students enrolled at US universities spend a portion of their courses at sister institutions overseas, will not resume until it is deemed safe to travel, and universities “are not certain when they will be able to offer education-abroad programmes again”, said NAFSA.

The group found that, of 346 respondents to its survey, most (53%) had cancelled study-abroad programmes due to Covid-19, and would “not be able to recoup” funds.

Meanwhile, nearly a third (32%) of US universities said that, throughout the crisis, they had financially supported foreign students by bearing costs related to airfare, food, housing refunds, rent, scholarships and tuition refunds.

In projecting a decline in international student enrolments in the autumn, most (35.5%) US universities said that they expected to lose between $100,000 and $500,000. Nearly a fifth (18.4%) thought that they would lose between $500,000 and $1 million, while 6.6% expected to lose more than $3 million.

“The results of this survey indicate that US HEIs [higher education institutions] are experiencing multiple financial challenges related to study-abroad and international student and scholar programmes and services due to Covid-19,” said NAFSA. “These financial challenges are influencing decisions on staffing, future study-abroad programmes, and enrolment management strategies at HEIs.

“As institutions shift gears to promote online learning, it must also be recognised that there are institutional costs to transitioning to a fully online platform, both in training faculty and students and providing access to appropriate learning management systems and resources.

“Issues of access and equity are perpetuated by this sudden transition as institutions work to ensure all students have access to technology and the internet to continue their educational programmes.”

Across the pond, the UK’s higher education sector – which like that of the US is market-based and relies primarily on income from tuition fees – has projected losses of billions of pounds due to a dearth of international students in September.

Universities in Australia and Canada, which are also heavily reliant on income from overseas students, are bracing for widespread losses, too, in September.

Date published: 26 May 2020

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