In recent weeks an energetic discussion has emerged among the international education community across the world on COVID-19’s potential impact on higher education, internationalisation and international student mobility and exchange. The range of opinions falls along two basic extremes: reassurance and panic.
On the reassurance end, a small number of commentators have argued that there will hardly be any disruption to internationalisation as we have known it and only a temporary decrease and slight restriction of traditional student mobility patterns.
On the panic end, many more observers have warned this crisis will hugely transform international education for the foreseeable future, devastate all current facets of programming and practice and cause a likely permanent rethinking in our practice.
As the coronavirus keeps much of the world’s population confined to self-quarantined spaces and observing the rules of social distancing, fears of a massive recession, increased global insularity, scapegoating and xenophobia all contribute to interpersonal as well as collective anxieties.
Many of our campuses are temporarily closed and teaching and meetings have moved online. Our professional associations are cancelling and rescheduling conferences and struggling with how to respond pragmatically to this uncertainty. As international educators we are away from our campuses and our students, which leaves us to ponder what major and minor impacts this pandemic may have on our profession and practice, both in the immediate and the longer term.
Although some of us remain hopeful that late summer programming will be able to resume, the short-term implications of this global pandemic are becoming clear: the enrolments of international students, who would normally be preparing for an international move now, will significantly decrease. Domestic enrolments will also be down, especially by those students who rely on their parents for tuition and fees.
While most institutions will manage to endure short-term enrolment losses, especially with the support of governmental interventions, many organisations supporting global student and scholar mobility will not, especially international student recruitment agencies and education abroad provider organisations.
The impact to the economies of local communities will also be felt this autumn, with fewer students renting apartments, dining out and shopping. Indeed, these are challenging times for all of us and yet, emerging developments suggest we may very well be at the beginning of a new era for international education, one which will challenge us to re-examine well-established practices, reframe our priorities and pursue emerging opportunities.
Just as the booming financial markets of the past years expected an imminent correction, perhaps it is time for one in international education now as well. The COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate changes that have already been in motion for some time.
For a while now we have been exploring new strategies with institutional partnerships, testing emerging technologies that lessen environmental impact through international travel, experimenting with different delivery modalities such as virtual internships and exchanges, navigating shifting enrolment patterns and student markets and reconsidering best practices in student services.
While a certain measure of retrenchment and re-direction is inevitable in the short term, this pandemic is also presenting opportunities for us to broaden the scope and direction of what we do in international education. Whether we welcome these opportunities or not, these changes could potentially move us in very positive and new directions, directions that we might have otherwise not realised or been slower to pursue.
International educators have long relied on partnerships with other organisations and institutions to support student and scholar mobility. Institutional consortia, for example, have enabled colleges and universities to collaborate in the development, implementation and oversight of programming without requiring sole ownership, risk and responsibility.
Similarly, International Education Organisations or ‘providers’ offer open-enrolment programming for students, thus expanding education abroad portfolios without requiring direct institutional oversight and administration.
Multilateral networks, such as the International Student Exchange Programme and University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific, have also emerged to provide student exchange networks between institutions. Europe’s Erasmus+ programme has similarly provided major funding and an infrastructure to promote student exchange.
As enrolment patterns shift, such means of collaboration between institutions will likely become even more important and there may also be an acceleration of other forms of collaboration, such as global gateway campuses, micro-campus networks, international branch campuses and the use of Online Program Management providers.
Such initiatives as these often rely on partner institutions abroad to provide local students with access to higher education without necessarily requiring an international move.
Looking forward, there will inevitably be greater reliance on partnerships and networks and with it will come greater scrutiny around issues of affordability, access and quality assurance.
Using emerging technology
The arrival of new technologies has been slowly changing the higher education landscape for years. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions around the world are now being forced to offer courses online, which leads to a more widespread adoption of online communication and learning platforms – which so far were merely complementary, except for distance education.
However, many individuals in academia are struggling with this sudden move, due to technological limitations and insufficient experience. This situation potentially jeopardises academic quality and student learning. Nevertheless, these technologies can be effectively leveraged to keep international students connected to the home campus or as bridge programming for new students awaiting international travel.
As institutions seek to expand course offerings, there may be increasing necessity to share courses through virtual exchange alliances and registries. In doing so, potentially a greater number of students will have access to intercultural classrooms offered by partner institutions around the world, thus re-emphasising discipline-specific learning over destination-oriented travel.
Expanding modalities of mobility
As international student enrolment patterns shifted over time, the term ‘study abroad’ was gradually replaced by the term ‘education abroad’ to encompass other modalities, such as undergraduate research abroad, global service-learning and international internships.
The COVID-19 pandemic is now giving rise to lesser known modalities through which students can engage in international learning without travelling abroad. For example, student interest in real-world work experiences that improve their skills and employability in an increasingly digital world has been growing.
Not surprisingly, there are already organisations that provide virtual internships in key markets around the world. In much the same way, virtual service-learning and entrepreneurship programming allow students to participate in community-based service or new business development projects while completing associated coursework online.
Technological advances have led to new developments in language learning as well and already virtual reality has enabled students to simulate language immersion. In recent weeks, there has been an acceleration of calls from provider organisations offering online language instruction and tutorials.
These expanded modalities of student mobility will likely grow in recognition and acceptance as they free students from geographical constraints and engage other student populations that have traditionally been unable to travel abroad.
International educators have long been adept at observing and responding to shifting trends in international student enrolment patterns – markets grow dramatically one year only to soon fall precipitously the next.
Institutions with flexible infrastructures and systems, especially those with favourable governmental policy support, may be most effective at responding to what will assuredly be greater competition for a smaller population of internationally mobile students, at least in the short term, as a five-year recovery period is expected for global student mobility.
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, there will be greater familiarity and acceptance of online platforms. There still may be growth in international mobility, particularly intra-regional study, as new educational demands emerge for particular knowledge and skills that outpace educational capacity in some countries, such as in computer science, supply chain management and public health and epidemiology studies.
The looming global recession may also encourage more mid-career professionals and lifelong learners to seek out continuing education opportunities – at home, abroad and online.
Institutions that are able to respond effectively to industry demands for shorter degrees and the delivery of micro-credentials and similar digital certifications may be best positioned to benefit by shifting enrolments.
Reframing student services
With completion rates of online courses notoriously low, institutions around the world are grappling with how to scale this methodology to ensure retention and persistence of students who were not already predisposed to such instruction.
As this pandemic has moved much of higher education online for the foreseeable future, traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ institutions may need to look to online colleges for best practices in course delivery and student services, something many have been loath to do.
With diminished on-campus social and academic integration, institutions will be pressed to consider a ‘new normal’ by exploring ways to provide virtual in situ advising and ongoing student support that is simultaneously attentive to issues of access, equity and inclusion.
New opportunities may be found in enabling students to build online academic communities that connect students to like-minded students around the world, thus helping them to achieve their educational potential through collaborative international learning. This may include leveraging existing technology in ways that more effectively enable students to form virtual study groups, consult mentors and engage in group-tutoring services.
Moreover, institutions in the short term may need to reconsider scholarships to aid international students who have experienced financial hardships due to this pandemic as well as revise long-standing schemes that have exclusively favoured residential education.
We are at the beginning of a new era for international education. And while many of us are forced to focus on immediate concerns, there may be some comfort in acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic is not signalling an end to international education but merely accelerating certain changes that have already been in motion for years.
To be sure, international higher education has been profoundly changed this year and our ‘new normal’ is still on the horizon. Our task ahead will be to transform immediate challenges into opportunities that broaden the scope and re-emphasise the value of what we do as international educators.
As we move forward, let us consider new partnerships that bring us together, embrace new and emerging technologies that enable intellectual exchange, test new modalities for student learning, engage new populations in the collective pursuit of knowledge and reframe our best ideas to boost student success during this transition. The road ahead will be challenging for international education, but hasn’t it always been?
Anthony C Ogden is associate vice provost for global engagement at the University of Wyoming, United States; Bernhard Streitwieser is assistant professor of international education at George Washington University, United States; and Christof Van Mol is assistant professor of sociology at Tilburg University, Netherlands. The positions expressed in this essay are further developed in Education Abroad: Bridging Scholarship and Practice, a forthcoming edited volume with Routledge, and its series, Internationalisation of Higher Education, edited by Professor Elspeth Jones. Written by widely-known and highly-respected international educators from around the world, the chapters in the book provide a synthesis of the burgeoning field of international education research, some of the main implications that existing scholarship has for practice within it, and directions for how the field of education abroad may develop in scholarly terms in the future.