The coronavirus crisis has emerged during a complex period for universities with an otherwise healthy outlook towards internationalization.
Over the past decade, institutions have worked hard to capitalize on the cultural and economic benefits of an internationalist ethos. But while diverse campus and town communities have thrived on internationalization, political changes in other areas have also stifled progress. Now with new social and travel restrictions bringing these issues into sharper focus, what will the future hold?
Universities respond to Covid-19
Recent restrictions on travel and campus access have posed new challenges to faculties already working hard to develop international recruitment, networks, and strategies. But as with so many affected sectors, higher education professionals are taking the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reassess their internationalization strategies.
In a live online panel, sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies of Higher Education, the message was very much that demand for education in an internationalist setting will continue to grow.
“Driven by growth in middle classes in developing countries in Asia and Africa, the demand for higher education is set to increase from 160 million students in 2015 to over 414 million by 2030, according to UNESCO,” Tim O’Brien, a senior vice president with INTO University Partnerships, told the panel.
But creating hasty technological fixes is not the answer, according to Hans de Wit, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College: “Making such changes quickly is a guarantee of low quality. And quality drops further when many students are lacking sufficient equipment.”
Meanwhile, an online iteration of the International Higher Education Forum highlighted the UK perspective: the “grand ambition of recruiting 600,000 international students by 2030” has been compromised by a potential five-year recovery process for global student mobility. It comes after the government loosened restrictions on how long international students can remain in the country to live and work after graduating (albeit also after Brexit severely tightened restrictions on EU graduates).
In recent years, Australia, Malaysia, Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have all become increasingly popular destinations for international study . Students will choose where to study in a corona/post-corona world according to national and institutional policy regarding fees, health and safety, and academic support in light of the disruption.
An international language
Offering English-language programs (complete with language support for students who need it) helps to keep an institution internationally competitive. Aside from prominent anglophone destinations such as the UK and US, English-oriented Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore pose an attractive proposition – particularly for Asian students who might typically have traveled west for school.
Today, limits on intercontinental travel make such options even more valuable. Reduced travel distances and increased online participation will prompt schools to consider their English-language offering, regardless of whether English is a local business language.
In Greece, for example, language is a starting point for the promotion of international participation and collaboration. According to Dr. Christos Michalakelis, President and co-founder of the Study in Greece Organisation:
“The breaking news is that the Ministry of Education is working on innovative legislation that will, among others, allow the universities to offer English-taught undergraduate programs for international students, provide joint programs with international universities, etc., with very simple and quick procedures.”
Evolving partnerships and technologies
Urgent policy may be essential in some cases, but, to reiterate Hans de Wit: internationalization is a long game. Developing a culture of internationalization (and reaping its rewards) requires investment in student mobility/access to tech, scholarships – and relationships.
“During the last decade, Greek universities expanded their networks by adopting a continuously globally-oriented attitude and the academic society became more extroverted,” continues Dr. Michalakelis. “It is of paramount importance that there is a need to reactivate the existing synergies and create many more as, among the many other benefits, they can contribute to the economic support of the universities and the society in general.”
Global gateway campuses/international branches and micro-campus networks were growing in scope before the new restrictions. Much more than just another way to convert international leads, such initiatives have become alternative ways to connect a global family of students and faculty. In a 'post-mobility' period, it becomes more appropriate to export knowledge rather than to import students. To create new connections and shared learning models, distributing education via a network rather than through traditional static hubs (i.e., campuses). Now is the moment to strengthen bonds and expand prospects with existing corporate and academic partners.
When circumstances require online solutions, the opportunity for dialogue, co-operation, and mentorship only increases. Naturally, there will be teething problems as educators and engineers develop technological solutions, but quality must remain paramount.
Schools should be openly transparent and accountable for their new virtual solutions, which means bringing students and staff together to design and problem-solve education’s emergent futures. Leaders must listen to a diversity of voices to ensure online portals are truly international in terms of cultural sensitivity, access, and usability.
A period of review in higher education
To conclude, the crisis requires immediate solutions while offering an opportunity to take stock, reassess, and plan for new futures.
One inspiring example is at the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA). The 23 members of the Directors Forum – mostly directors of international offices in universities across the country - have established a WhatsApp group to “to keep abreast of developments and to exchange views, ideas and examples of institutional practices" daily.
Dr. Samia Chasi, strategic advisor for the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA), identifies the ongoing need to provide genuine care and support for international students. Right now, that particularly means “students from countries identified as high-risk [who] were particularly concerned about their prospects of leaving South Africa and being able to return once campuses reopened.”
Dr. Chasi’s review poses a few evergreen questions that are adaptable to international offices around the world:
• “Can a focus on virtual mobility instead of physical mobility provide us with an opportunity to have greater numbers of students benefit from internationalization?"
•"Can a stronger focus on the exchange of knowledge rather than people facilitate equality and mutual benefit in international partnerships?”
• “Could the turn to virtual conferencing increase the number of African delegates at such events, especially those who miss out on ‘traditional’ international conferences due to financial constraints?”
The coronavirus pandemic's various effects on higher education intensify the benefits of threading internationalization through every aspect of an institution’s culture and strategy. Coronavirus is a global challenge and an unprecedented opportunity to connect with international partners to find bold new ways forward.
No matter what, the benefits of internationalization still stand. Multinational employers value the experiences and networks of these schools’ graduates. In turn, the graduates value the connections they've made with talented students around the globe and the potential for international recognition of their academic work. The wealth of shared culture and knowledge that internationalization fosters is immeasurable.