Unforeseen events and extreme consequences and their impact on study abroad

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We could not have foreseen the impact that Covid-19 would have on the higher education sector. Back in February 2020, I thought the consequences of Covid-19 might be confined to Asia but within five weeks, universities all over the world were mobilising forces to bring thousands of students back from their studies abroad. Furthermore, there was a rush to support online delivery to enable students to complete their courses.


At the same time, the European Association for International Education (EAIE) joint leadership meeting brought over 120 international education professionals together to contribute to our 2020+ strategy development. We were fortunate enough to have Will Archer (founder of i-graduate) with us to explore scenarios and to consider the future operating environment. Will emphasised the need to consider the impact of technology on international education and to look out for 'unforeseen events typically with extreme consequences'. The financial crash in 2007, Brexit and Covid-19 are recent examples of this.


Immediate response

EAIE was quick to respond to events and between 19 February and 6 March, we conducted a Covid-19 survey and published the results in a report, 'Coping With Covid-19'. The report provides insights into how respondents at more than 600 institutions in 38 countries across the European Higher Education Area experienced mobility disruptions, approached management and messaging in response to the crisis, and also how they were considering future implications of the pandemic. One of the most compelling impacts of the current crisis emerging from this report, and others, has been the effect on students and staff. People have been faced with difficult and stressful situations, leading to a heightened interest in matters of wellbeing and resilience within the international education community.

As early as February 2020, steering group members of the EAIE Expert Communities Mobility Advising and Guidance and Counselling Group wrote a blog about supporting students affected by coronavirus. In April 2020, the first episode of the EAIE's new Community Moments webcast series showcased the matter of placing care at the centre of Covid-19 responses. This was followed up in an EAIE webinar instalment featuring the subject of helping students thrive in a newly online environment.


Longer-term impact

In the first phase of the crisis, much of our attention focused on ways to manage this academic year and to ensure students could complete their studies. Universities adapted quickly to the crisis and online teaching increased at a pace few of us could have envisaged, but much of this was done under pressure in order to ensure students could continue with their studies. Attracting students to courses where this is the offering from the start is a different proposition that will require high standards of quality and delivery. Creating an interactive and effective online classroom environment requires investment in technology, equipment and training.

Now we are trying to prepare for a largely 'unknown' future. With so many moving parts, this is a real challenge, but there are some compelling and thoughtful insights being generated and shared within our community. For example, the notion of a 'post-mobility world' where we begin to reinvent alternatives to 'mobility-based internationalisation' which are more accessible and have less environmental impact. Similar themes around the carbon footprint of mobility and the overdependence on international student tuition fees in some countries are covered in the 'revolution that isn't'. These reflections point to some of the key issues we will have to consider as we redefine 'internationalisation'. Themes picked up by John Hudzik, 'How to strengthen internationalisation post Covid–19', and by Vicky Lewis, who questions the need to reconsider internationalisation strategies in favour of 'internationalism', defined as 'the advocacy of cooperation and understanding between nations', is something we can all relate to during a global crisis.

During a recent EAIE webinar on the future of student mobility, and also in an article in the EAIE Forum, Piet Van Hove explained that the 'outbreak of Covid-19 highlights the need for alternative means of facilitating online interactions across classrooms'. He made the point that Collaborative Online Learning (COIL) offers a systematic approach to doing this. Piet's session attracted a great deal of interest and many participants were signposting people to Virtual ERASMUS. It is becoming clear that collaborative online learning will be among the options available to students in September 2020 and beyond.

Online education can open up opportunities and it has the potential to increase access to a wider audience, if they have the resources. However, increasing digitalisation also raises issues of equity and access as not all students are digital natives and stable online access is not guaranteed.


Looking to the future

At the University of Strathclyde, where I work, in terms of internationalisation and students, the focus now is on recruitment and student mobility. Planning for outbound and inbound mobility and assessing what options will be available to students, especially those for whom study abroad is a key component of their degree, is a priority. New online options including international learning and engagement through technology-based experiences will feature in these discussions, but ultimately students will decide what's best for them.

I do know that for many students, in particular undergraduates, online access is not currently perceived as an attractive substitute for physical mobility. These students want to travel, be embedded in different cultures and languages and to experience new horizons. I hope that as restrictions are lifted and students are confident that it is safe to travel, physical mobility will continue.

Covid-19 and its impact was for most, an 'unforeseen event' but some of the unintended consequences may well be positive. Online delivery has the potential to increase access to global learning and it provides opportunities to embrace a broader view of student mobility.

Few of us anticipated a crisis of this scale, but the international education community can be proud of its response and confident that the bonds forged over decades will provide the resilience needed now to face the challenges that lie ahead.


Michelle Stewart is Vice-President of EAIE and Director Internationalisation (Humanities & Social Sciences) at the University of Strathclyde.  


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