As a teacher in Thailand, I know Covid will stop my students going to UK universities

Overheard in my classroom, at an international school in Thailand: “My dad doesn’t think it’s a good idea to go to the UK at the moment. He’s not sure Covid-19 will be under control by the time I go to university next year.”

From another student: “I was looking at courses abroad but my parents have suggested that I look at universities in Thailand instead, and then look at the UK for my master’s in a few years.”

In my role as a head of sixth form at a British curriculum international school in Thailand, I counsel students who are deciding what to do (and where to go) once they finish their secondary education. Historically, many students have focused on going to universities in the UK, Europe, the US or Canada. This year is different.

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Responses like the ones I mentioned above are widespread. Families are hesitant to send their children to the UK due to the perceived health risk caused by the pandemic, especially considering tuition fees can be as much as £20,000 for international students.

The main nationalities represented at our school are Thai, Korean and Chinese. On the big whiteboard in my classroom, I write the university choices of my Year 13 students. This year, I have noticed that a number of them want to study closer to home. Many Thai students are opting to stay in Thailand, Korean students want to return to Korea, and several of the Chinese students I work with are looking at options in Japan and Singapore, as well as at UK universities with international branch campuses in south-east Asia.

Along with Covid-19 concerns, there’s another reason why they’re looking closer to home. According to the QS world university rankings, Asian universities are snapping at their elite European counterparts’ heels: they make up 26 of the top 100 universities in the world compared with 34 in Europe, and have ambitious plans to go from strength to strength.

Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at Oxford University, Simon Marginson, has argued that east Asian countries which are handling their response to the pandemic better will potentially become the next major, and most sought-after, student destinations. Could this represent the end of the current model of international higher education, in which students travel from east to west?

Recent research by academics in Hong Kong showed that 84% of Chinese students surveyed have no interest in studying overseas after the pandemic. This represents a threat to UK universities’ business models, since last year 120,000 students in the UK were Chinese, with applications rising by 30% last year. The British Council surveyed Chinese nationals who had applied to study abroad and found that approximately 47% had decided to defer their university start.

This “breathing space” for international students may cause them to look closer to home for university options, particularly given the growing quality and recognition of Asian universities.

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As a result, UK universities must work harder than ever to ensure that when the world opens up again, they remain a destination of choice. Perhaps one of the main solutions could be meeting east Asian students halfway, by expanding the quality and breadth of their local branch campuses, such as those offered in Malaysia and China by the University of Nottingham.

From my perspective teaching in Thailand, UK universities seem too complacent. I can’t even find an up-to-date list of their international branch campuses, and while my inbox is full of invites to virtual events and open days from European and American universities, the silence from their UK counterparts is deafening. I’d urge them not to assume that students from east Asia will just keep on coming.

  • Sadie Hollins is an English teacher at Lanna International School, Chiang Mai

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