The impact of COVID-19 and other infectious disease outbreaks on international students

How can we ensure that students can continue learning even in the face of global health crises? Changing the structure and format of education might offer a solution.

March 20, 2020 by Peter Anti Partey , Institute for Education Studies
5 minutes read
Political Science Professor at University of Ghana, Dr. Evans Aggrey-Darkoh gives a class lecture in Accra, Ghana. Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Political Science Professor at University of Ghana, Dr. Evans Aggrey-Darkoh gives a class lecture in Accra, Ghana.
Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

There is a vast difference in the quality of education across countries; even within the same country, the disparities in the quality of education between rural and urban centers is one major reason for internal migration.

This explains the frequent movement of students from developing countries to the developed world to pursue higher education. In some countries like Ghana, there are deliberate policies to sponsor certain category of students to study in other countries, thus enabling the transfer of knowledge across regions.

The primary goal of international education is to broaden knowledge and cultural capital, learning about places and cultures and gaining intercultural skills in the process.

The social and economic benefits of international education to the host country as well as the country of origin cannot be overemphasized.

Outbreak of infectious diseases

The effort by countries to attract international students is highly threatened by the continuous global outbreak of infectious diseases. Over the years, some of these outbreaks have killed many people and led to countries closing their borders, employing strict immigration policies and advising people against traveling across borders.

The 21st century was greeted with the SARS outbreak in 2002, which spread across 29 countries, infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 (WHO, 2010).

The Ebola outbreak in 2013, which was described as the most widespread Ebola virus disease in history, infected 28,616 people and killed over 40% of those infected (11,310 deaths) (WHO, 2016).

The most recent outbreak is the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), which was detected in Wuhan, China, and reported to the World Health Organization in China on December 31st, 2019. The rate of spread has become so alarming that most countries are now taking unprecedented steps and precautions to ensure the safety of their citizens and curb the rate of new infections.

These outbreaks have had grave consequences on global education. For instance, in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak of 2013, over 10,000 schools in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea were closed for a full academic year. This was necessitated as a result of the ban on public gathering, which invariably affected schooling.

According to a World Bank research, the reopening of schools offered a fresh start for most students, even though a majority may have lost track of what they had been taught in previous months.

A question is: how does the spread of these life-threatening diseases affect international education, and what should countries do to continue to benefit from international education during these outbreaks?

COVID-19 and international education

China is the third country globally in terms of the number of international students, behind the United States and the United Kingdom (UNESCO, 2019). Like most countries in Africa, available data suggest that about 5,516 Ghanaian students are currently studying in China, with 1,006 having received Chinese government scholarships. Ghana has been ranked the top African country for the number of students it sends to China for three consecutive years.

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on these students, especially those from Africa and other developing countries, cannot be underestimated. The issues of travel ban, prohibition of social gathering and quarantines significantly impact education at all levels both within countries and internationally.

Those who are currently in the affected countries will have a distorted academic calendar and in some instances might have to abandon their education until the host country is able to control the spread of the outbreak.

Developing countries with less robust education systems may experience a breakdown of their education at all levels, while the desire of most young Africans to further their education abroad will be crushed.

Coronavirus in Ghana

As of March 19, Ghana has recorded 9 cases of the coronavirus. The President addressed the nation on March 15 and instructed the closure of all schools until further notice. This has been followed by mixed reactions from various stakeholders. The shutdown of the education system is worrying for all children, but also for higher education students, considering that Ghana has its share of international students.

Between 2007 and 2015, Ghana was able to increase the number of international students in the country by 838%, from 1,899 to 17, 821 students (World Education Services, 2019).

International students on various university campuses that have been closed down are admonished to stay in their respective halls of residence until further notice.

The way forward is through technology

The most immediate remedy to salvage the situation will be the adoption of educational technology (ed-tech). Educational institutions should employ e-learning systems and more sophisticated measures to deliver education.

Online learning, webinars and flipped classrooms can be a potent mode of education delivery now and in the future when such outbreaks occur. Educational institutions could resort to modern technology and innovations to deliver quality education to their citizens and their international students.

Various ed-tech platforms are available already for this purpose. Examples include Formative, Flipgrid, InsertLearning and Google Docs among others. These platforms should be optimized and made an alternative to residential education.

Again, the practice where institutions of higher learning in developed countries enter into a formal collaborative agreement with similar institutions in developing countries should be encouraged. This provides a platform for international students to access quality education from these advanced institutions from their country. Even though not new, it is important for universities in developing countries to pursue this policy of affiliation vigorously.

It is time for education to assume a different structure, format and dimension in this era of technological advancement, especially for developing countries.

Educational institutions should metamorphose to offer quality education through a non-residential format, alongside their residential set-up. This will help ensure that students and children can continue their learning even in the face of difficult times like we experience today.

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