When Gabi Martel started a new graduate program in February at Rome’s Sapienza University, the last place she expected to be three months later was quarantined with her family in her hometown of Porto Alegre, Brazil, and attending lectures via Google Hangouts. Leading up to Italy’s March 10 lockdown, Gabi and her friends and coworkers from around the world had buckled down after Carnival holidays, returning to their offices or classrooms. Many in Gabi’s academic and social circles in Rome work in social policy for international organizations, so most were tracking the news of a rising new virus and how it might impact their work or research. Some stayed in the country, which continues to be under quarantine, while others, like Gabi, traveled to home states and countries to ride out the pandemic with family.

Like many students in the United States and around the world, rather than attend classes as planned, Gabi and her classmates meet their professors online. Around the world and across grade levels, the story is the same. Students and teachers find themselves trying to learn online, unexpectedly. Some love it, some hate it. Some may be reconsidering their college plans altogether as a result of the pandemic, while others can’t wait for things to get back to normal, and some are demanding refunds.

It seems to be the case that our primary method of funding colleges and universities in the United States, one which leaves schools to raise essential revenue through tuition, fees, and other enterprises, has put American schools in a precarious situation.

However, no matter where students and faculty land on the issue, one thing is certain: the face of higher education around the world will never be the same. Anyone following U.S. higher education in the past month has seen that the sector is bracing for disaster. A brief scan around the globe hints that some nation’s sectors are set up to weather this storm better than others. It seems to be the case that our primary method of funding colleges and universities in the United States, one which leaves schools to raise essential revenue through tuition, fees, and other enterprises, has put American schools in a precarious situation. The effects of this may be magnified at schools that depend on high-paying international students for revenue.

The Internationalization of Higher Education

There is a global race between institutions to stay afloat in the short term, recover quickly, and stay competitive for a lucrative source of revenue: internationally mobile students. Many colleges and universities in the United States and abroad rely on international student recruitment to survive. Worldwide, there are over five million college students studying in places other than their home country. Top destinations include the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and France. International students typically pay higher fees than domestic students, and thus provide an essential and sometimes sizable revenue stream to the institutions they choose to attend. Generally speaking, international student recruitment is part of what some see as a broader process of the internationalization of higher education.

There are many aspects to this process of the internationalization of higher education. Its purpose can be academic, sociocultural, diplomatic, and/or fiscal. Aside from international student recruitment, internationalization can refer to exchange and study abroad programs, the prioritization of conducting research in a foreign language, and it can be the establishment of branch campuses in foreign locations. Institutions may claim many purposes for internationalizing, sometimes in concert with larger national efforts. Countries and universities together may choose to internationalize as a way to speed up research and development, or they may see education as a diplomatic tool. Institutions may also internationalize for individual economic reasons, for instance, to expand brand recognition or to seek an additional revenue stream either from incoming foreign students or from the creation of branch campuses abroad.

Institutions that rely on international students for revenue are now bracing themselves for tough financial times ahead. Those set up with the infrastructure and regulatory power to continue enrolling international students may come out of this unscathed, assuming they can persuade students to enroll. Examples from around the globe show this to be the case, but also indicate that structural changes to how colleges are funded would go further in protecting schools and students through prolonged interruptions.

Brazil and Italy

Gabi is one of nearly 60,000 Brazilian students studying abroad, and in Italy, she is one of over 97,000 international students. By the numbers, Gabi’s home and host countries seem poised to weather slowdowns in international student mobility.

Brazil sends more students out than it takes in: just a fraction of a percent of Brazil’s 8.5 million college students are from other countries. The Brazilian universities with the largest share of that small amount are federal universities, publicly funded by the federal government, and are by nature not dependent on tuition. These numbers paint a picture of a system not particularly internationalized, but also not in danger of collapse because of travel restrictions.

Despite the fact that 5 percent of all students in Italy are international students, Italian universities seem relatively safe from collapse if international students fully change plans post-pandemic. The primary indicator that this may be the case is that Italian universities do not charge higher fees to non-European Union students. So while student fees vary widely across the country, it is evident that institutions are not attempting to differentially depend on them as a revenue source.


After spending the past two months under an emergency-implemented plan to shift all students to online learning, China, which typically has very limited recognition of online degrees, signaled that its universities will continue serving their international students who are barred from returning to the country. That being said, Chinese universities will likely exit the pandemic unharmed for other reasons.

One reason Chinese institutions are likely to fare better than their global counterparts is their low reliance on international students as a source of revenue. One percent of the country’s 44.9 million university students are from outside China. China is much more well known for contributing a massive number of international students to colleges elsewhere: the country sends out more than twice as many students (over 928,000) as it takes in. The Chinese government has prioritized the internationalization of its universities, as it seeks to bring more of its schools international recognition and up to elite status. The recruitment of international students is part of that effort, and the country has steadily increased the presence of foreign students over the past few years. However, despite an emphasis on recruiting international students, most of these students are financially supported by their home governments, by the Chinese government, or by the institution itself.

Early in its shutdown, China implemented the “Suspending Classes Without Stopping Learning” initiative. This policy created an imperative for online platforms to be available free of charge, and for the quick distribution of teacher training materials specific to the online learning context. Issues surrounding internet and device access, content, the feasibility of learning in the home, and teacher and student workloads were all front and center, as they are in the United States. Thousands of tablets were distributed, and in regions where IT infrastructure is still sparse, satellite TV was used.

Dr. Huili Han of Central South University in Hunan Province has spent the past year as a visiting professor at George Washington University. She specializes in civic and moral education and was in the United States to conduct research until the pandemic interrupted her study. Dr. Han has firsthand experience with developing and using online learning resources back home. At the university level, under normal circumstances, online resources are regularly used in tandem with in-class meetings even under normal circumstances. In 2013, the government began devoting substantial resources to developing massive online open courses (MOOCs), with the intention of prioritizing hybrid learning in university courses and delivering high-quality content to remote regions. Dr. Han explained that in China, “MOOC development is more about the students inside the university,” rather than for potential use by the general public or with the intention of anyone earning a degree fully online. Now, during university closures, professors already have these as a tool on which they can rely, and with which they’re already familiar. The results of an early March survey of Hunan Province undergraduate students and faculty show that reactions to the emergency shift to online teaching were similar to reactions in the United States: around 40 percent of students and 30 percent of instructors were unsatisfied with the shift to online learning.

According to Lili Yang, a PhD researcher at the Center for Global Higher Education who specializes in East Asian and Anglo-American higher education, the Chinese government moved swiftly and unilaterally in making resources from institutions and internet companies available to the public. After restricting the return of foreign residents to the country, the government also asked universities to ensure ongoing service to international students who were unable to return to campuses. These moves may prove to preserve their international enrollments once borders reopen.

If public budgets shrink, university budgets will shrink as well; but overall, it seems that Chinese universities may be protected when compared with colleges that depend on tuition from home or international students.

Chinese universities are not necessarily immune to the shock introduced by COVID-19. However, most universities receive the majority of funding from the central and/or local governments, and won’t be at risk if there is a dip in fee revenue. Government appropriations make up about 60 percent of funding across all higher education institutions, though this figure includes independent colleges that receive small amounts of government funding. Some public university students are now subject to paying tuition and fees, though the government heavily regulates how high these can go. Of course, if public budgets shrink, university budgets will shrink as well; but overall, it seems that Chinese universities may be protected when compared with colleges that depend on tuition from home or international students.

New Zealand

Increasingly a top destination for mobile Chinese students, New Zealand universities depend heavily on international student revenue. Almost 20 percent of all higher education enrollments in the country are from international students. As early as 2014, a paper discussed how New Zealand might be setting itself up for disaster with its increasing reliance on international students. International students pay around three times that of their domestic classmates, and institutions certainly have a lot to lose if international students leave permanently.

I spoke with Dr. Nicholas Holm, a senior lecturer in media studies at Massey University in Wellington, just as the country was entering a strict lockdown. Massey has a large student population spread between four campuses (one of which is an online campus). It is also the primary institution in the country that offers 100 percent online programs, and is subsequently well-equipped to continue doing so during the shutdown. Massey also happens to have the smallest share of international students of any New Zealand university. Even so, given strict border closures, Massey (and the New Zealand government) is advising international students to remain in New Zealand.

The Chinese Ministry of Education recently announced a temporary yet drastic policy shift to recognize course credits completed online from New Zealand’s universities. This move, along with New Zealand’s swift and comprehensive response to the pandemic, may prove to retain or attract back its essential international student population. Countries that can win the race to reopening and ensuring international students that the pandemic is well managed will likely keep, and even gain, portions of the international student market.

How Will the United States Fare?

To put it simply, colleges outside the United States will benefit from any bungled American public health management at this time, as well as during any subsequently slow economic and institutional recovery. If closures continue for as long as some predict, happen inconsistently, or are necessary multiple times in different regions of the country, some U.S. colleges risk losing out on a portion of student enrollment they depend on for revenue. Nearly one-fifth of all international students study in the United States, and of our total enrollment, they make up around 5 percent and contribute over $44 billion to the U.S. economy. Though they are just 5 percent of the total, there are sizable concentrations in some states and universities, and in most cases, international students in the United States pay significantly higher tuition than domestic or in-state students.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation on the University of Maryland’s reliance on international students shows that the institution stands to take at least a 10 percent hit in tuition revenue if its international undergraduates were to withdraw and not return to campus. The university enrolled 6,808 international students in 2018, of which 1,595 were undergraduates. International undergraduates pay the same tuition rates as out-of-state students ($17,608 in 2018) plus an international student fee of $125 per semester. From this group alone, the university might raise over $56 million in a school year, not counting room and board or additional fees levied on juniors and seniors enrolled in popular majors. UMD reported $525 million in tuition and fee revenue in 2018. International undergrads make up less than 3 percent of the student population at UMD but contribute up to 10 percent of all tuition revenue.

Of course, the issue is a bit of a chicken–egg situation. Are international students attracted to schools because of status? Does the price charged imply status? Do institutions gain status by charging higher amounts? There are myriad push-and-pull factors at play in the internationalization of higher education.

But regardless, these losses will be significant for many American institutions; and while the governance and finance of higher education in the United States can’t change overnight, measures can be taken to protect colleges from the effects of short- or long-term closures. One approach is for colleges to make a plea to students to remain enrolled, and to ensure that students’ home countries will recognize credit earned online. While many students in the United States have already indicated their fall 2020 plans will likely change, New Zealand’s Massey University is asking students not to make a hasty decision, and U.K. institutions are being advised to convince students that distance education is feasible. The results of these efforts of course remain to be seen, but while international student enrollment on campuses has grown steadily worldwide international student enrollment online has not. Having international students in their home countries studying online is therefore not something institutions should bank on in the long term. Perhaps a safer approach is for federal and state governments to provide levels of funding that prevent institutions from looking to unsustainable sources of revenue in the first place.

The financial fallout from managing the health crisis will result in cuts to state budgets, and thus to education systems. Such cuts often lead to tuition increases. Dependence on international students stems from being dependent on student fees: the higher the amount of dependence on tuition, the higher the fiscal risk, so boosting public funding and lowering students’ out-of-pocket costs is key in this moment. As it is, significant resources will be needed to maintain the systems already in place, especially if there are new expenses colleges are taking on for shifting online in the short and medium term, and this is the case around the world: Australian universities are asking the government to step in to keep schools afloat if and when international student enrollment drops (some universities in Australia depend on international students for up to half of all tuition revenue).

Would U.S. higher education be less internationalized if our colleges were fully funded by the government? I hope not. The inclusion of international students in U.S. institutions is beneficial beyond the revenue generated, and public support for the inclusion of international students should be expanded. Students, faculty, employers, the local and national economy, and society at large benefit from our international student guests. Internationalization is good for many reasons, but institutions need to be set up to weather internationalized storms. Reliance on international students for revenue highlights the need for substantial and sustained public funding for America’s colleges and universities.


The author would like to thank Dr. Taylor Woodman for helpful feedback on an early draft.

header photo: Students move out of dorm rooms on Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images