Are higher education institutions ready to adapt to the post-pandemic world?

By Avantika Tomar

Crisis often requires society to transform itself, sometimes in disruptive ways. The Covid-19 pandemic is one such crisis that is turning economies upside down and drastically transforming key sectors, including higher education. While higher education institutions (HEIs) are undergoing radical transformations, albeit under pressure, due to the need to digitize learning in record time, there are challenges.

Key Challenges

More than 5 million students are enrolled in higher education institutions outside their home country (UNESCO, 2020), generating a global economic impact of nearly $300 billion annually. China and India, emerging as the top source countries, make up nearly half of international students at US universities (UNESCO, 2019). The pandemic has wiped out this segment or at best resulted in delayed admissions.

The good news is that these numbers are starting to improve and student mobility patterns worldwide are starting to return to pre-Covid-19 levels. India witnessed the highest number of students traveling abroad in 2021, according to a report by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The number rose from 589,000 in 2019 to more than 750,000 in 2021. While numbers have improved significantly, higher education institutions will still need to think about ways to build on this momentum.

The next challenge is cash flow, especially for universities that rely heavily on the tuition fees of international students. Not only do these institutions lose food sales, parking fees and other revenues, they also face unexpected expenses, including partial or full reimbursements of fees and the need to scale up virtual education infrastructure. Students who are unhappy with the current online learning experience or who cannot afford tuition in the current economic climate will drop out, further increasing the cash flow challenge.

The third challenge is the plight of educators who are made to experiment and master virtual teaching in record time. While most higher education institutions have adapted by partnering with educational technology (edtech) providers, is this the start of an academic revolution? Well, we have yet to see that.

The road to post-pandemic transformation

While some experts think higher education institutions will largely return to pre-pandemic times in a year or two, others predict the mass extinction of personal universities. Both are extreme ends of the spectrum. Somewhere in the middle of these extremes, however, lies the sweet spot for higher education institutions to keep internationalism alive:

Offer blended learning: Online education provides universities with a wealth of data to help them decide which aspects of their courses can be supplemented or replaced by the digital medium. They can also determine the varying degrees of online and in-person experiences required for each course. The hybrid model provides the benefits of an on-campus learning experience while lowering education costs.

Maximize student engagement and experience: One of the biggest factors that can make or break a student’s experience is their sense of belonging. This aspect has suffered the most during the pandemic. Without a strong sense of belonging, students often struggle to remain academically engaged. In order to provide a pleasant student experience, some universities in the UK, Australia and New Zealand have reportedly organized chartered planes to bring students. Kent State University has set up a one-stop-shop website, with a calling line and contact details for all Covid-related questions, including telehealth services.

Rachit Agrawal, co-founder of AdmitKard, said of the importance of partnering with partners and making learning more accessible for students: “To ensure a pleasant student experience and build a strong future, four components must work together: the admission to the university office, test execution agencies, government officials (immigration agency) and edtech players. Countries that have found a way to work together are seeing an increase in the number of international students.”

Involve policy makers and regulators: Universities will need to develop innovative ways to increase the attractiveness of their courses. For example, the US was the destination of choice for 32% of eligible students seeking higher education. That number has now fallen to 9%, fueled in part by restrictions on opportunities (mainly visa sponsorship) for international graduates entering the country.

Build digital marketing opportunities: Educational trade shows, once gala events with free offers and discount offers, are now hosted online. For example, APAC universities spend nearly 58% of their marketing budget on online events. Georgia Tech University has a popular YouTube channel with guide videos, student profiles, and engaging “day in the life” type content.

Collaborating with edtech companies: Universities should pay attention to strategic partnerships with edtech providers. Most content produced by edtech companies would require investment beyond the content creation budgets of most individual universities. Several European universities are pooling resources and collaborating with edtech companies to develop programs, learning materials and other student activities.


Significant changes are likely to take place in the higher education landscape in the coming years, but the pandemic has revealed the sector’s potential to adapt quickly. We may eventually see a “back to the classroom” environment, but the blended learning model will prevail for the foreseeable future. To thrive in the post-pandemic world, higher education institutions must develop resilient strategies, be open to collaboration and embrace digital transformation to create a transformed identity.

(The author is associate partner (Education), EY-Parthenon)

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