In "International higher education at a crossroads post-COVID" Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit argue that international education will return to normal in the next few years(University World News, 12 June 2021). However, the illustration for the article is not a crossroads, but a fork. That perhaps is a metaphor for how university have been getting higher education wrong: not so much making the wrong choices, but not understanding what the options are. I suggest we are already past the fork in the road: universities chose online education and there is no turning back and they should take the opportunity to make a better world with it.
Higher education has changed fundamentally. Distance education has been popularized, or perhaps more accurately proven feasible, but unpopular. ;-)
Research collaboration has been shown possible online.
Before COVID-19 I spent ten years teaching online, while studying how to do it better. My colleagues looked on this as an amusing quirk. With lock-downs, they suddenly wanted to know how.
Similarly with online research I had the occasional collaboration. But last year I worked with a much larger team online and we were much more productive. I produced two papers instead of one and helped present them at a virtual conference, instead of flying to the other side of the world.
Education will be radically transformed, through distance technology. One lesson I learned from studying practices at online university (which have existed for decades) is the discipline this imposes. Because of the limitations of the online format, better design, planning and systematic implementation of courses and research is needed. Some spontaneity is lost in the process, but much more is gained.
One area where more innovation is needed is in hybrid instruction. Universities and individual academics, are thinking that online learning went okay up until now, so how hard can hybrid (some in class, some online) be? The answer is that hybrid is much harder and will take more resources and skill than classroom and online teaching.
The pandemic showed that a campus is not needed for education.However, much work needs to be done to facilitate student to student, student to academic and academic to academic interaction online.
Interactions did not happen naturally on campus. Architects and administrators have been designing and refining campuses for hundreds of years to make interaction happen. The report "The Cambridge Phenomenon" described how this happened at Cambridge University to promote commercial spin-offs and universities have been creating the same conditions ever since.
International student choices are not going to return to "normal". The large numbers of students choosing to abroad up to 2019 was an aberration and this golden age for universities will not return. Now that students know they can study online they will choose to do so, at least for part of a degree.