While the international press, politicians, national leaders and a wide range of commentators and soothsayers address the issues of the global pandemic, an “industry” called ‘international education’ appears somewhat forgotten.

For those severely impacted – students, families, universities and educational institutions the challenge, is immense. In many cases institutions face financial closure, thousands of faculty and staff are out of work. Young men and women globally face the potential damage and collapse of their academic dreams as well as extreme cashflow issues for their families – an extended yet painful impact of this “virus”. We look at the major player in this “industry” – the USA.

Globally, at the end of 2019 there were some 5.5 million international students, more than half of them enrolled in education programs in six countries, the USA, the UK, Australia, France, Germany and the Russian Federation. The USA saw 1.1. million international students contribute nearly $45 billion to the U.S economy – a 5.5% increase. In the past three months universities have closed, international students told to vacate their dorms, travel restricted or banned, remote learning and online courses rushed into place.

Often forgotten in assessing these statistics and grasping the impact of this crisis is the prior wonderful global interaction of our young people and the positive relationships built and nurtured between the future leaders of the world. Some 370,000+ students from China studied in the US in 2018-19 with a remarkable concentration in STEM fields. Emerging market countries, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh all showed strong growth years. Another 342,000 U.S students participated in study abroad programs for academic credit, over 60% of these going to European countries, the U.K., Italy, Spain, France and Germany hosting the most. In Greece, numbers grew by 20%+.

In a best case situation we may see improvement in dealing with the pandemic within six months, students returning and universities reopening. In a worse case situation we may not see remedies until well into 2021 or later. The pandemic has created a major financial disaster for educational institutions and it would appear we will witness hundreds or more closing before the control of the pandemic occurs.

It is necessary to grasp the size of the problem to comprehend the resources that may be needed to respond to the crisis. There are some 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States. The Association of American Colleges and Universities states that there are some 2,600 accredited four-year colleges and universities. Most of these are private or part of State education systems. Of the nearly 594,000 reported instructional staff, 154,000 were professors, 129,000 were associate professors, 132,000 were assistant professors, 98,400 were instructors, and 29,600 were lecturers ( How many college students are there in the U.S.? In 2018, there were 14.53 million college students in the U.S. enrolled in public colleges and 5.12 million students enrolled in private colleges.Moving all those assets into a remote learning/online environment is a major challenge, never before undertaken.

If we then turn to the global picture, moving the world’s students online starkly exposes deep inequities in education systems; from the shameful number of children who rely on school for food and a safe environment, to a digital divide in which children without devices or reliable internet connections are cut off from learning. In Denmark, Slovenia, Norway, Poland, Lithuania, Iceland, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, over over 95% of students reported having a computer to use for their work. (Quartz).

Only 34% in Indonesia did. In the US, virtually every 15-year-old from a privileged background said they had a computer to work, but nearly a quarter of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not. These divides will likely worsen, as staggering job losses and a recession devastates the most marginalized in every society, including all their kids. Schools face a difficult choice: if they don’t teach remotely, all of their students miss out on months of curriculum. If they do, a sizable group of already disadvantaged students will be left out and will fall even farther behind.

The OECD is one of many organizations advocating to increase access to open free, online educational resources and digital learning platforms for teachers and students. For schools to succeed, teachers will also need access to training and support. The crisis is highlighting the role schools play outside of education.

At a moment when schools need to adapt how they teach, many are consumed with how to feed their students. Gwinnett County, Georgia, one of the largest school districts in the US, is feeding 90,000 students a day.  “It’s a prime example of how schools have become not just learning institutions, but the heart of the social fabric of America,” (Emerson).

When the storm of the pandemic passes, schools may be revolutionized by this experience. Or, they may revert back to what they know. But the world in which they will exist—one marked by rising unemployment and likely recession—will demand more. Education may be slow to change, but the post-coronavirus economy will demand it.

Executive Chairman, GoGlobal Education