IN THE NORMAL run of things, late summer sees airports in the emerging world fill with nervous 18-year-olds, jetting off to begin a new life in the rich world’s universities. The annual trek of more than 5m students is a triumph of globalisation. Students see the world; universities get a fresh batch of high-paying customers. Yet with flights grounded and borders closed, this migration is about to become the pandemic’s latest victim.
For students, covid-19 is making life difficult. Many must choose between inconveniently timed seminars streamed into their parents’ living rooms and inconveniently deferring their studies until life is more normal. For universities, it is disastrous. They will not only lose huge chunks of revenue from foreign students but, because campus life spreads infection, they will have to transform the way they operate (see Briefing).
Yet the disaster may have an upside. For many years government subsidies and booming demand have allowed universities to resist changes that could benefit both students and society. They may not be able to do so for much longer.
Higher education has been thriving. Since 1995, as the notion spread from the rich world to the emerging one that a degree from a good institution was essential, the number of young people enrolling in higher education rose from 16% of the relevant age group to 38%. The results have been visible on swanky campuses throughout the Anglosphere, whose better universities have been the principal beneficiaries of the emerging world’s aspirations.
Yet troubles are piling up. China has been a source of high-paying foreign students for Western universities, but relations between the West and China are souring. Students with ties to the army are to be banned from America.