By Takashi Watanabe in Washington, D.C., Gakushi Fujiwara in New York, and Shinya Wake
Universities in the U.S. and UK have traditionally attracted a large number of students from all over the world, but they have been shaken to the core by the coronavirus pandemic. Many classes are being offered online, but international students are dissatisfied with the arrangement. In addition, universities are unable to come up with concrete plans for the fall semester. Faced with the prospect of a sharp drop in the number of international students and the loss of a core source of income, the universities are now finding themselves at a major crossroads.
For the U.S. and UK, educating students from overseas is a major industry. According to 2017 statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), American institutions of higher education, such as universities, accepted the largest number of foreign student in the world at approximately 1 million. Colleges in the UK came second with more than 430,000 students from overseas. The impact of international students on the two nations’ economies has been significant. The National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA) estimates that the annual economic impact of foreign students totals $41 billion (4.4 trillion yen) in the U.S.
At Grinnell College, which is in the Midwestern state of Iowa, there are only a few students left on campus now. Hiroyuki Shiono (21), a junior at the school, studies in front of a computer screen day after day in his room in the empty dorm.
Shiono graduated from a private high school in Tokyo and enrolled at Grinnell in September 2017. He had been enjoying his college life until March, when the college administration announced that classes would be held online from that point and they would no longer accommodate students on campus. Many of the students had been living in the university dorms. After the announcement, almost all of the 1,500 or so American students went home. Many of the approximately 200 foreign students also went home, leaving less than 70 on campus.
“I didn’t come to the U.S. to attend online classes. Online discussions are not as meaningful or informative.” In addition, internet access on campus has not been optimal, making smooth communication difficult. “We used to visit professors during their office hours to discuss academic points. That’s not an option anymore. Libraries and the gym are closed as well, so I’m just stuck here in my room.”
He paid $70,000 total for the annual tuition and housing. Some students tried in vain to negotiate with the school for a reduction in tuition fees.
A survey of 1,300 college and graduate students in the U.S. revealed that 76% were dissatisfied with online classes. In another survey of 14,000 students, 67% of respondents said that “(online classes) are not as effective as in-person classes.” Yet another survey of parents and guardians revealed that 40% were considering postponing sending their children to college. The Institute of International Education (IIE) asked 599 universities about their plans for the upcoming fall semester and found that 85% of them had no concrete plans yet. Close to 90% of universities surveyed said they were expecting a drop in the number of international students coming to study at their institution, including those expecting a large drop (30%).
Coronavirus undermines educational exchange
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting the lives of international students everywhere, who had aspirations to grow and learn in new and unfamiliar environments. The universities that have long relied on income from the tuition of international students are also facing a major challenge.
In the U.S., many colleges and universities set tuition fees for international students higher than those for domestic applicants. The difference between tuition fees for international students and in-state students is significant. In the University of California system, international students pay as much as 2.5 times more than their in-state peers.
Some international students find part-time jobs on campus that are permitted under a student visa. The pandemic has eliminated that option. A University of Nebraska (Nebraska) senior, Shota Kuwasaki (22), says that he had been working at the student gym for about nine hours a week to earn roughly $80. Now he is digging into his savings.
The federal government announced that it would distribute more than $6 billion to universities as an emergency support fund. However, President Trump, who advocates “America First” policies, publicly indicated that international students were not going to be eligible for the benefit. Issues surrounding visas are surfacing as well. The U.S. has stopped issuing visas in most countries. In addition, international students must be attending in-person classes in order to be eligible for student visas, and online classes do not satisfy the requirement. While the restriction is temporarily suspended during the pandemic, it remains to be seen what will happen in the future.
According to the U.S. media, students of at least 26 American universities have filed lawsuits demanding partial reimbursement of their tuition. Some are boycotting classes or organizing demonstrations to put pressure on the schools.
Dick Startz, a professor specializing in economics and education at the University of California Santa Barbara, says, “People pay a lot of money to come to the U.S. to study, experience living in America, and interact with Americans. Online classes are so much less attractive. The number of newly incoming foreign students may drop significantly.” He added, “Many universities have relied on tuition income from international students, especially graduate schools in business and science fields. The effect of the drop will be enormous.” (Slightly abridged)