The UK’s higher education sector can expect at least 12 months of “abnormal conditions” stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, while international student mobility could take at least five years to recover, according to the Centre for Global Higher Education.

Simon Marginson, director of the UK-based partnership group of 14 universities, said that “international higher education is going to take a massive hit”, as economists have suggested a “possible 10% reduction in global GDP and a very long recovery period”. Prolonged economic unrest will have the greatest impact on key source markets, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sub-Saharan Africa, said Marginson at a forum hosted by Universities UK.

He noted that shrinking cohorts of middle-class citizens, which over the past decade have propelled the growth of the international student market, will result in a significant drop in supply of overseas students.

“In the near future, at least, this is going to be flipped around to a buyer’s market, where we will be hunting scarce international students for some years to come,” he said.

Marginson cast doubt on the ability to resume in-person tuition in September, when the academic year starts in the UK, warning that social distancing measures could prevent this until next year.

“Realistically we are not going to see a return to face-to-face education at scale,” he said. “We are looking at a new academic year which is predominately, or wholly, online, and I think the situation is likely to persist into 2021.”

To survive, some institutions may pivot to become online-only providers, he said.

Marginson’s stark warnings have come amid widespread concerns in the UK’s and Australia’s higher education sectors, both of which are heavily dependent on income from international students and are bracing for multi-billion-pound losses this year and next. Universities UK has warned that some institutions could go bankrupt.