Look Back 2020, Plan Ahead 2021

The international education system witnessed a chaotic start of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It created the most considerable historical education system disruption, affecting almost 1.6 billion learners from over 190 countries on all continents (United Nations, 2020, 2). While each education level is undergoing unique challenges, the higher education segment might trigger an international learning revolution—one that we are seeing in this country now.

The greatest challenge in international higher education was the loss of learning. The introduction of online learning was a way of rescuing the situation and preventing the academic year’s loss. This was a new experience for some institutions, and the transition from campus study was not easy for most students but especially international students. Higher education institutions in industrialized nations had the resources to transition to online learning smoothly, but those in developed countries struggled to cope. Approximately 40% of those nations failed to support learners during the pandemic (United Nations, 2020, 8). Similarly, many international students could not access learning materials because they lacked equipment and internet.

The international higher education system has been shaken to the core during 2020, and this can be the catalyst for changes in education models. Blended in-person and online education can be expected to continue globally from next year. Campus-based higher learning institutions are likely to adapt to new technological approaches to learning. Likewise, resilient and efficient technology-based education systems capable of withstanding the drawbacks of pandemics will develop. Changes will range from pedagogy, tools and assessment methods, learning outcomes to and educational investment. Additionally, the move towards a profit-making private education sector in most nations will continue to aggravate higher education inequalities (“Higher Education, International Issues,” 2020, 1). Most deserving candidates will miss enrollment opportunities since they cannot afford the escalating costs of higher education. There is the possibility that broader public goals and traditional universities’ functions such as academic freedom and autonomy will be ignored (“Higher Education, International Issues,” 2020, 1). The adverse economic impact of 2020 and higher education costs will also lead to many students not being able or deciding not to attend college thereby making other education/career choices.

A major area of disruption has been education abroad. Before the current crisis, the number of U.S. students studying abroad was growing according to Education Dynamics. During the 2017-2018 academic year, the number of study abroad students grew by 9,000 to a total of 341,751. However, the pandemic caused unprecedented disruptions to study abroad programs over the past year, with colleges and program providers evacuating students from their host countries in large numbers and suspending most international programs for the summer and fall. Some colleges have extended existing restrictions on university-sponsored study abroad travel through next spring, while others are evaluating programs on a case-by-case basis. (Inside Higher Ed, 2020). And there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of that tunnel. Many schools have stated to offer virtual study abroad programs. Virtual Study Abroad experiences are an innovative way to reach more students and faculty, as well as further promote traditional study abroad. These virtual study abroad opportunities have far fewer limits and are accessible to all. Virtual study abroad experiences will continue to develop, diversify, and evolve into the future while going hand in hand with existing programs. While it is not the intention that virtual study abroad replace traditional programs, rather they are another avenue for students to participate in the international experience.   

2020 has been a challenging year for international higher education. There has been a loss of learning, and educational inequalities have also exacerbated. It seems like these issues will extend beyond the pandemic, and most disadvantaged learners will lose opportunities in higher education institutions. It is also expected, in 2021, that new resilient and technology-based education systems will emerge and that heart of the coming transformation of higher education is technology. Gap years might also become more attractive in 2021. It is no secret that most 18-year olds are not quite ready to assume the rigor of college and a gap year might afford them the opportunity to expand their experiences and gain the maturity necessary for college life. Ninety percent of kids who defer and take a gap year return to college and are more likely to graduate with better grades. (Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity). Virtual study abroad will also be more available and allow these experiences to many more students who prior could not afford the cost or time away due to family or work situations. With the arrival of new vaccines for COVID-19, it is hopeful that international student enrollments will resume to a “normal” level in the Fall. There are serious challenges for 2021 but this new year also presents many opportunities for growth and introducing new and exciting changes.


  • Inside Higher Education: November 19, 2020.

Posted by Elaine Del Rossi

Elaine recently joined the Company in August 2019. Previous to that, Elaine was Vice President, Terra Dotta and most significantly, from 2000 to December 2018, was the Chief Sales and Service Officer for GeoBlue (previously known as HTH Worldwide) were she was responsible for building and expanding the international student division to include coverage and services for higher education business travelers. Elaine is a recognized expert in the international student insurance market and has been asked to speak and present at conferences around the world. Elaine hold a BS from Ursinus College; an MS from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s Certificate from Stanford. She is also on the Board of several non-for-profit organizations.

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