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Welcome to the new school: 5 higher education trends in 2021 and beyond

The academic year 2020-2021 will go down in history books as one of the most important years in the history of education. This Insights article explores higher education trends post-COVID.

Welcome to the new school: 5 higher education trends in 2021 and beyond

Besides the current issues in higher education this 2021, it is inspiring to note how there has been a great improvement in the global education market’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as presented by the data collected by Unesco

On Feb. 4, 2020, there were 1,484,715,875 affected learners along with 173 country-wide closures of educational institutions. This number of students represented about 84.8 percent of the total enrolled learners around the world. But according to recent data, the staggering numbers dropped. As of April 4, 2021, there were only 27 country-wide closures affecting 174,240,920 learners (10 percent of total enrolled learners)—this would mark an 88.2 percent improvement. Perhaps, the improvement could be attributed to the immediate rollout of COVID-19 vaccines around the world, among other initiatives by government units and medical frontliners. 

As for higher education institutions, more and more of them have decided to make vaccination a requirement for students. Some members of the global education market are playing a wait-and-see approach, as some people from their respective communities have expressed outrage over the vaccination requirement with reasons ranging from religious and medical concerns to logistical difficulties.

But the overall sentiment has been positive, at least, according to a January 2021 survey conducted by College Pulse: Seven in 10 students believe colleges can require COVID-19 vaccinations.

A January 2021 survey by College Pulse asked 1,000 college students in the United States on whether or not they agree with higher education institutions requiring their students to be vaccinated before returning to campus. Seventy-one percent said they had no problems with schools making vaccinations a requirement. / College Pulse

The ‘new school’

While the numbers point toward the global market of higher education and international students making a strong comeback, there are several factors that have surfaced during the pandemic which could lead to a shift from the traditional ways of education delivery to more modern ways. These range from matters like incorporating education technology and revisiting partnership strategies for more inclusive pathway programs, to improving higher education marketing plans and organizing competitive international recruitment initiatives.

However, all these changes suggest a revival, and not a replacement, of the entire global international education market. There will be room for improvement, yes, but experts are confident that some of the tried and tested systems which worked for higher education institutions—some, even for decades—will remain relevant moving forward.

According to an article published by the World Economic Forum, 49 percent of adults think that the future of higher education will be a “split between in-person and online.”

Ipsos, a multinational market research and consulting firm based in Paris, France, “surveyed adults in 29 countries on how they see higher education being delivered in five years’ time,” stated the article. 

In a World Article Forum article published on Nov. 25, 2020, it displayed the results of an Ipsos survey asking adult correspondents in 29 countries, how higher education will look like in five years. Almost half believe that higher education will be a hybrid of in-person and online learning. / World Economic Forum

Trends, expert predictions

Global education trends in 2021 have provided higher education institutions with foresight as to how the succeeding years could play out. Several studies have already been done so as to determine what the upcoming global trends in education are. 

By taking a good look at higher education trends post-COVID for starters, international students can be enlightened about making their education plans, while higher education institutions, including faculty and staff, will be more prepared for the future of education delivery. 

Here are five of the most common higher education trends post-COVID.

The norm of blended learning. About a month after the official declaration of the pandemic by the World Health Organization, the American Council on Education released a statement entitled, “Higher Education Associations craft statement of principles on acceptance of credit during current emergency.”

“…there is a set of common principles that institutions should keep in mind when developing policies regarding credit acceptance. These principles seek to model the integrity, flexibility, understanding, and compassion that represent the very best of our diverse institutions and our commitment to our students and the communities we serve.”

The most obvious fruit born out of the need to be flexible was how institutions quickly embraced incorporating blended learning into school programs. The University of New South Wales defines blended learning as “a flexible approach to the design, development, and delivery of learning and teaching. It’s a hybrid of online learning and traditional face-to-face learning, the one enhancing the other.”

Students who were hit by the pandemic may need more time than usual to complete their programs. It is expected that colleges and universities will be looking into offering more ways how students can complete their desired programs.

A survey by BestColleges revealed that 33 percent of school administrators “planned to continue with both remote and online course options after returning to normal campus operations.” As for students, 49 percent of remote learners plan to enroll in online courses even when campuses return to normal operations. 

Popularity of career-oriented programs. The pandemic has forced people to rethink their college plans. According to an early 2020 Strada Education Network survey, the majority of adults (59 percent) who were planning to enroll in an education or training program preferred non-degree programs. Only 16 percent opted for a bachelor’s degree. 

The economic recession is felt around the world and thus, it would just be a matter of time until this mindset is shared by the majority of international students. Currently, are higher education institutions prepared for the influx of both domestic and international students interested in pursuing career-oriented programs? 

To cope with modern needs, some four-year institutions are adding three-year college degrees. There are about 30 colleges and universities in the United States that currently offer students a three-year pathway to graduation. Ideally, these three-year degress should counter the issue with rising tuition. But whether students see that value in them anyway is another story.

The need for education technology. Moving forward, expect more and more institutions to upgrade their school’s technology that would affect the entire operations from student recruitment to education delivery. If not for computers and internet connectivity, the disruption of the global market of higher education in 2020 would have been far more disastrous.

“Higher ed has been a leader in online learning, and the pandemic provided the opportunity to adapt and evolve that model at scale in a way that will have a lasting impact,” said Susan Manning, co-author of “Online Education for Dummies.”

“Effective online learning is about more than posting assignments and Zoom lectures. As higher education institutions prepare for 2021, we will see an investment in technology, training and flexible curriculum that combines traditional classroom outcomes with certificates, stackable credentials and digital badges that will help educators reach students in new, exciting ways.”

Drive for international recruitment. Higher education institutions in destination countries like the United States, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom will definitely tap into the advantages of blended learning, and will be focusing its global education marketing efforts on attracting more international students from sending countries.

Just before the pandemic hit, NAFSA: Association of International Educators reported that international students in the United States contributed $41 billion to the economy for the 2018-2019 academic year. The report also stated that other countries like Canada, China, and Australia are also benefiting from international student entry as well.

Higher education institutions in these countries will slowly make up for the losses incurred during the 2020-2021 academic year (the United States absorbed a 43 percent decrease in new enrollments), and will be promoting more of their pathway programs to invite more new students. Able students would also be more than willing to explore the varied education opportunities available as competition among higher education institutions will be sure to present them with different learning and pricing options.

Focus on mental health, wellness. While institutions were caught between the balancing act of surviving and thriving during the pandemic, they were also reminded of the importance of strengthening their support services for students, faculty and staff. Just because some things were effective, doesn’t necessarily mean they were easy.

A survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that about 75 percent of people from ages 18 to 24 admitted to facing at least one adverse mental health symptom. According to the BestColleges survey previously cited, 28 percent of remote students believe that their study experience during the pandemic will have “lasting effects on their mental health.”

For faculty and staff, the lack of job security, the health-risks involved in having to report to campus (or being infected of COVID-19 and transmitting it to a loved one at home), and the long hours of holding online classes and having to do additional work at home are burning them out.

According to a 2020 Course Hero study, 75 percent of teachers reported significant stress with their switch to online teaching, and about 33 percent shared that trying to meet their own students’ mental health needs added more stress.

As all of these mentioned trends slowly come together, students, faculty and staff will together go through multiple years’ worth of a learning curve. It would be responsible for higher education institutions to focus on building, strengthening, and empowering their support services, so as to acknowledge and address various mental health needs and ensure that their schools continue to be places of inspired learning.


The academic year 2020-2021 will go down in history books as one of the most important years in the history of education. In a time when the world was experiencing a solid global education market growth, COVID-19 stopped progress on its heels, mostly the reason for the current issues in higher education in 2021. 

With the observed post-COVID higher education trends shared in this article, higher education institutions may still emerge on top. And they must, and as soon as possible, for the sake of avoiding a generational education gap.

Read more:

Data sources:

Education: From disruption to recovery. UNESCO. Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse.

Hess, A. (2021, April 12) Many colleges will require the Covid vaccine—here are some of the challenges ahead. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/12/colleges-will-require-the-covid-vaccinethese-are-the-challenges-ahead.html.

7 in 10 Students Believe Colleges Can Require COVID-19 Vaccinations. (2021, January 27). College Pulse. Retrieved from https://collegepulse.com/blog/7-in-10-students-believe-colleges-can-require-covid-19-vaccinations.

Whiting, K. (2020, November 25) Is this what higher education will look like in 5 years?. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/higher-education-online-change-cost-covid-19/.

Statement of Principles on Acceptance of Credit (2020, April 16) American Council on Education. Retrieved from https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Statement-Acceptance-of-Credit-Principles-041620.pdf.

Blended and online learning. University of New South Wales. Retrieved from https://teaching.unsw.edu.au/blended-learning.

2021 Online Education Trends Report. Best Colleges. Retrieved from https://www.bestcolleges.com/research/annual-trends-in-online-education/.

Public Viewpoint: Trends in Education Plans (2020, April 29). Strada. Retrieved from https://cci.stradaeducation.org/pv-release-a-template-copy/.

12 Higher Ed Trends to Watch In 2021 (2021, January 4) Inside Track. Retrieved from https://www.insidetrack.org/resources/12-higher-ed-trends-to-watch-in-2021/.

Schaffhauser, D. (2021, January 4) 25 Ed Tech Predictions for 2021. Campus Technology. Retrieved from https://campustechnology.com/Articles/2021/01/04/25-Ed-Tech-Predictions-for-2021.aspx?Page=1.

Ireland, S. (2021, February 10) Revealed: World’s Best Countries For International Students, 2021. CEOWORLD. Retrieved from https://ceoworld.biz/2021/02/10/revealed-worlds-best-countries-for-international-students-2021.

Losing Talent: An Economic and Foreign Policy Risk America Can’t Ignore. NAFSA. Retrieved from https://www.nafsa.org/policy-and-advocacy/policy-resources/losing-talent-economic-and-foreign-policy-risk-america-cant-ignore.

Fall International Enrollments Snapshot Reports. IIE. Retrieved from https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Fall-International-Enrollments-Snapshot-Reports.

Czeisler, M. (2020, August 14) Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm.

Faculty Wellness and Careers (2020, November 18). Course Hero. Retrieved from https://www.coursehero.com/blog/faculty-wellness-research/. 


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