The pandemic may have wreaked havoc on schooling and overseas travel, but a new report has found that demand for international education remains robust today, with the majority of students remaining committed to their plans to study abroad.
As many as three in five (60%) students who planned to attend university overseas say the coronavirus pandemic has had no impact on their aims, according to research released Tuesday by education technology company Cialfo.
The report, entitled "Understanding student recruitment: impact of the pandemic and beyond," surveyed 3,785 high school students across more than 100 countries to gauge how the pandemic has impacted international higher education.
While enthusiasm among most prospective students was little changed by the pandemic, the report found that many are now burdened with additional worries that could disrupt their plans.
Three quarters (76%) of students say they are concerned about not fully enjoying their student experience given the current environment, and more than half (58%) do not see the value is paying for fees for an online-only experience, the study found. Those financial concerns were especially pronounced in Asia Pacific (62%) and North America (59%).
"While this reinforces the enduring value of an international education, the ongoing challenges related to the pandemic make it a far more nuanced topic," Rohan Pasari, co-founder and CEO of Cialfo, told CNBC Make It.
"Where reputation and academic requirements were once key considerations — today, students also care about safety, social justice, environmental impact and health, amongst others while selecting a destination for their studies," he said.
Studying overseas becomes more complicated
The benefits of studying abroad are varied and numerous for many students, from gaining new life experiences (76%) to accessing "better" academic programs (53%) and exploring different cultures (53%).
But the pandemic has complicated those goals.
In the U.S., the number of international student fell for the first time during the 2019-20 academic year. It is estimated that if Australia's current travel restrictions remain in place, it will receive 300,000 fewer international students this year, hurting students and colleges.
As ongoing restrictions continue to limit the college experience, students hoping to study abroad have had to reconsider their priorities. The report found that students in APAC, for instance, are now thinking about their college choices in terms of not only reputation (72%) and academic requirements (70%), but also future job uncertainties (51%) and Covid-19 related safety and travel restrictions (50%).
That, in turn, has meant that universities have to better understand student sentiment and how to structure their offerings moving forward.
"It's no longer just about what major a university offers, as factors like health & safety, cultural fit, employment opportunities and the ability to fund their education become increasingly important in the changing circumstances," said Pasari.
What that means for the future of higher education
Despite the shifts, Cialfo's research found that total college and university applications in 2020 rose 30%, with the number of applications accepted increasing by 15%. The top overseas countries applied to were the U.S., U.K., Canada, the Netherlands and Australia.
That bodes well for the future of higher education, said Pasari. Yet, further changes lie ahead.
"In the short term, we think that students will apply to universities in multiple countries — hedging their best bets to ensure they're not caught off guard if a certain country's border regulations change," he said.
"Universities in countries that are issuing student visas and allowing them to enter the country even as online learning remains the norm certainly stand to benefit from higher international enrolments."
Over the longer term, however, the changing landscape could lead more colleges and universities to offer so-called multi-articulation degrees, which would essentially enable students to take classes of an overseas university from another campus in their home country.
"This format has been around for a while, but we expect its proliferation to increase in the years to come," said Pasari.
"This will offer many benefits for students — including financial relief for those who find it harder to finance traditional overseas education — but its success depends on whether countries will recognise these programs for work visa qualifications," he added.
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!