Impact of COVID-19 on the International Higher Education Sector

At Sannam S4, we are closely monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on the International Higher Education Sector. With over 125 dedicated higher education professionals based in our offices in New Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai, we are actively tracking the immediate responses from a range of different governments such as Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States to support the sector.

The article highlights the existing situation on the ground for each of the major International Education hubs as well as some recommended responses by government agencies that can help support measures to ensure the safety, well-being and overall success of students, faculty members and administrative members of their institutions.

Situation on the Ground


Status of Institutions: Schools, Universities, public transport, and airports have been exempted from lockdown in Australia as they are considered part of ‘essential services’. However, various university associations have requested the Australian government to close schools and universities to help flatten the spread of the virus. Some Australian universities, such as the University of Sydney have now announced campus-wide lockdowns.

Visa Updates: A travel ban was placed on all non-residents and non-Australian citizens coming to Australia, effective from 9 pm on Friday, 20 March 2020.


Status of Institutions: Universities around Canada have been shut down according to national pandemic guidelines, in order to flatten the curve.

Visa Updates: The Federal Government of Canada confirmed that it will allow international students back into the country, despite the stringent travel bans put in place. However, students will have to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return.


Status of Institutions: Schools and colleges across the Republic of Ireland have been shut until March 29 to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Visa Updates: In a statement released late on 20th of March by the Government of Ireland, non-EEA nationals with immigration permission due to expire between March 20th, and May 20th, 2020 would be granted an automatic renewal of their visas for two months. Ireland has also allowed all students who had lost their part-time jobs to apply for the COVID-19 relief fund, in the same way as other local workers impacted by the virus can access the funding.

New Zealand

Status of Institutions: All educational facilities are closed and are providing distance learning where this can be reasonably managed by staff working from home.

Visa Updates: New Zealand has closed borders to almost all travellers (non- residents and non-New Zealand citizens) from 19 March.

United Kingdom

Status of Institutions: UK universities suspended face-to-face teaching on March 17. However, some universities cannot fully close as they have commitments to students who live on campus (including international students), certain research that must run around the clock and maintaining infrastructure.

Visa Updates: On March 24, UKVI also clarified that due to the current exceptional circumstances, they will not consider it a breach of sponsor duties to offer distance learning to existing Tier 4 students in the UK or who have chosen to return overseas but wish to continue their current studies.


Status of Institutions: Colleges and universities across the US are canceling in-person classes due to coronavirus. The cancellations were initially focused on states hardest hit by the virus, including the Seattle area, California and New York. However, the federal government has not put all universities under lockdown. There has also been widespread reporting of International students being given short notice to vacate to leave their accommodation at US institutions.

Visa Updates: The US State Department has suspended visa application services, including those for student visas at its embassies in most countries. In addition to this, the State Department has raised its global travel advisory to level four “Do Not Travel” and requested its citizens abroad to return home. The Student and Visitors Exchange Program also clarified that if an active F student leaves the United States to complete the spring term online, their SEVIS record should remain in active status and will be terminated. Some US institutions have already started notifying autumn 2020 applicants that they can defer to spring 2021 or even autumn 2021..

*This information was last updated on March 27, 2020*

Recommended Responses

With the extensive travel bans and lockdowns placed in most countries, it is essential for government agencies to create a sense of certainty, especially for international students, during these turbulent times. Below, we have outlined seven steps that governments can take to help safeguard international students that have been severely impacted by COVID-19.

1. Need for consolidated messaging from government departments

It is important for government agencies to broadcast messaging from relevant sector bodies that focus on the positive steps being taken to meet the needs of international students. Students heavily rely on an effective communication from universities and sector bodies who represent the needs of their individual members.

A case in point is the update released by UCAS and Universities UK on the 20th of March for all International students (current and prospective) regarding the measures being taken to support them in these unprecedented circumstances.

Media networks should also be closely monitored by the Government agencies to ensure that any fake news regarding student mobility is rebutted. The Government’s official education agencies of different countries should be positioned as caring and supportive partners that give high priority to the safety, well-being, and success of their international students. Good news stories amidst these dark times should be highlighted.

2. Student Mobility: Visa and Flight Restrictions

The Government of India has issued an updated travel advisory which states that all scheduled international commercial passenger services shall remain closed till 18:30 hours (GMT) of April 14, 2020. This travel advisory has caused a significant amount of panic and distress amongst Indian students currently residing in different countries regarding their ability to leave and re-enter the country. This will be the case for many other nationalities as well.

Governments should work closely with institutional providers to ensure that there is adequate support for International students. Institutions and sector bodies should work together to seek clarity on important visa updates to ensure that students have all the information and resources required to plan their travel.

Governments should also consider setting up a task force comprising of appropriate government officials, representatives from sector bodies and other agencies to look at a coordinated approach at student support and repatriation, if necessary. Such a body could coordinate and work with the governments of other nations to enable the repatriation efforts of students from one country to another.

3. Flexibility to protect the pipeline of students

Schools, colleges and universities have been closed down in India till further notice. As a result, year 12 Board exams have been postponed mid-way, which will delay the results of the UG aspirants from India. In addition to this, a number of agencies offering the TOEFL and IELTS have announced that they would suspend exams in the countries affected by the coronavirus through the end of March.

The IB and Cambridge International have both announced that the May/June 2020 examinations will no longer be held this year in any country. Instead, students will be awarded a Diploma or a Course Certificate which reflects their standard of work.

It is also expected that with the general slowing down and work from home operations of banks, education loan processing and forex releases will be significantly delayed.

Government agencies should be flexible about the changing dynamics when looking at administering visas for students. For example, with the cancellation of standardised EFL testing, universities will inevitably look for different ways of testing students. The new testing agencies and their results should be recognised by immigration authorities as alternate certifications.

4. Support after the closure of universities to International students

Governments should work closely with institutional providers to ensure that it is coordinated, and consistent support offered to International students who continue to stay on campus despite shutdowns.

For example, if an international student displays symptoms of the virus, immediate measures must be taken to support the student during self-isolation including providing adequate healthcare, accommodation and lodging services. The government and official health agencies can support institutions in their responses here.

5. Flexibility for missed graduations 

Several universities have decided to postpone the graduation ceremony for students enrolled in undergraduate and masters programmes.

In this scenario, the rescheduled graduation ceremonies may require international students to return to their respective host countries later in the year, after their visa expiry date. Governments should have a flexible view of allowing students to return to the country to attend their respective ceremonies.

6. Online education and pedagogy

It is undeniable that the current situation presents a significant challenge for the International education sector. There will possibly be casualties and institutions that will suffer a significant financial impact. A way to reduce that impact is through alternate methods of delivery such as online education and governments should seek to support fast-tracking development of this area.

Online education also presents an opportunity for cross-border collaboration. International universities can support the development of such technologies in countries that are less further forward in this area.

7. Support and funding for research collaborations 

Governments should also play an active role in supporting the programming and funding of those institutions that are working to develop a medical solution to fight against COVID 19. Governments can play a pivotal role in connecting suitable institutions to leverage their expertise and achieve a beneficial outcome. Several universities in the US, UK, Australia, and China have already shifted their sole focus to COVID-19 research while closing down all other research departments.

The response to COVID is an example of how critical well-funded research departments are and how global collaboration between universities can solve major challenges for the world.


The COVID-19 pandemic is a wakeup call for the world to reflect on the importance of collaboration and cooperation. Now, more than ever,  governments worldwide need to support the development of high-quality cross-border research and innovation that can help tackle complex problems that will arise from this global crisis.  Whether it is analyses on the economic fallout, a vaccine for the COVID-19 or the training of public health staff, universities are the best-positioned agents of change that can support humanity during these uncertain times.

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