Education and Skills

Virtual mobility and overseas learning in a post-pandemic world

Vodafone Internet Cafe (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana

Image: Unsplash/Kojo Kwarteng

Samuel Martin-Barbero
Presidential Distinguished Fellow, University of Miami
Francisco J. Marmolejo
President of Higher Education, Qatar Foundation
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  • The enthusiasm for living and studying abroad has waned as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • But the importance of in-person and on-campus experience for a full-time and residential college generation has become increasingly apparent.
  • Studying overseas is doubtless one of the most precious aspects of contemporary higher education.

Over the past several months, the enthusiasm for living and studying abroad has waned significantly thanks to a number of factors including the COVID-19 Delta variant, major travel restrictions, the ongoing global vaccination exercise, and prolonged visa delays for many of the six million international university student population globally, over 1 million of whom study in the US. These factors have not only dampened enthusiasm but also rearranged student priorities, affected family support and altered decisions regarding university destinations.

In 2020, as universities ‘virtualized’ a great part of their instruction, we promptly saw first-hand how valuable in-person and on-campus experience is for a full-time and residential college generation of students, faculty and institutions. In response, Australia and Canada swiftly approved significant measures to support universities that have lost international students to the ‘pandemic effect’, while increasing demographic diversity. Even so, some universities are currently discouraging students from spending time overseas.

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While the US remains optimistic with regards to the future attraction of foreign national students, especially at highly selective and financially healthy institutions that keep an annual international enrollment average of 20% or above, the 2020 decrease in enrollment adversely affected smaller and more fragile universities and communities. A few of these, very sadly, have had to put an end to their history, legacy, and mission. Meanwhile, in the UK several private secondary schools are facing financial challenges with the recent decrease in students from China, France and the US, and some universities are sharing travel and accommodation costs to avoid the risk of minimizing the international ‘tuition revenue stream’.

A side effect of the pandemic on international enrollment, however, is the fact that students are now applying to more institutions than before. There is likely to be a resurgence in applications to regional hubs like the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the spirit of the Bologna Process, which is an initiative that seeks to bring more coherence to higher education systems across Europe. Students who apply to universities in their geographical regions share a common history, culture, customs, beliefs and language, and can access higher education at a more affordable cost.

Challenging the status quo

If the ‘pandemic effect’ on international higher education is prolonged, alternative countries and universities could rise to prominence and change the status quo in student mobility. Some countries have already crafted clear and workable plans for higher education. These plans are well-funded to improve and standardize academic quality, bolster research output, build environmentally friendly campuses, offer classes in at least two languages, and ensure close industry cooperation. Thanks to this broad vision, universities in The Netherlands, Germany, and France; Japan, China, and India; the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have consistently moved up the global rankings.


At this juncture, however, education commissioners, funding agencies, accreditors and senior university leaders are still approaching international higher education with caution. Things like recruitment, hiring, teaching, researching, and fundraising have slowed down considerably. While this is perfectly understandable at this stage of the pandemic, the situation must not remain the same after COVID-19. Studying overseas is doubtless one of the most precious aspects of contemporary higher education, despite the fact that only 5% of the approximately 240 million post-secondary students in the world have access to it.

Higher education institutions need to adopt the agility that business schools have deployed with much success over the years. These schools have transformed their business processes to attract ‘mid-career students’ from a wide variety of industries and across latitudes. They have targeted and engaged with a myriad of professions, corporations, and market demands. Now is the time for large universities and colleges to do the same internationally.

It is important to understand that the internationalization of universities - as an educational learning process itself - goes well beyond what we classically understood it to be. The pandemic has shown that academic programmes and collaborations can be geared towards ‘virtual internationalization’, meaning that on-campus students can have the opportunity to interact virtually with peers at international universities and professionals in their field of study. A case in point is Coventry University’s Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) experience.

A case for internationalization

Science and knowledge are, in and of themselves, transnational aspects of human creation. They are an intellectual window through which curriculums can take on an internationalized worldview across every discipline. This allows educators to find common ground between institutions, no matter the country, and to equally involve faculty, students, and staff.

This is, perhaps, a healthier and more effective way of keeping internationalization alive during these uncertain times of regional and national isolation; a way that ensures universities practice internationalization for all students - those who stay at home and those who travel overseas.

Hopefully, the pandemic will highlight new ways to provide international higher education. Universities should switch from the transactional and credit-bearing model to a relational and social model when addressing the exposure of students, faculty and staff to globalization. They should be able to align not only resources, energy and efforts, but also values and ideas towards the consolidation of transcultural understanding, human immersion and long-lasting experiences overseas.

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