A major innovation brought about by globalization within higher education is the increase in academic mobility. Every year, millions of students cross borders to access higher education, or to discover a new way of learning. This experience full of autonomy and novelty pushes their self-development and opens doors to other cultures.
With the progressive closing of borders around the world, COVID-19 has dramatically impacted student mobility in a variety of ways. The International Association of Universities conducted a global survey on the impacts of Covid-19 in Higher Education demonstrating that institutions experienced it differently: while 89% of the institutions responding to the survey attested to suffering from the impact of student mobility, only 33% indicated that all student exchanges have been cancelled.
For students who were mid-exchange when the pandemic hit, difficult decisions had to be made about whether to continue their study abroad, or return home. Fiona was in Berkeley, California, on a one year exchange programme when restrictive measures, including the closure of universities, were announced in her home country France.
“When classes were moved online, things escalated quickly. Shortages in stores were multiplying, queues in front of the supermarkets were getting longer, people were getting anxious. Some international students were going back to their countries.”
Shortly before France closed universities, the President of the United States had closed borders to Europeans in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Educational systems and embassies were placing the decision to stay in students’ hands, flagging that border closures and increasingly restrictive travel measures could make international travel impossible. Like many other exchange students, in the face of mounting uncertainty, Fiona had to make a decision on whether to stay on her programme, or to return home.
“At the time, European countries were dramatically reducing the number of available flights to the US and prices were skyrocketing. One of my Swiss friends paid almost three times the price of a regular ticket to Switzerland in order to board one of the last flights to Geneva. On the 23rd of March, I decided to take one of the last flights to come back home."
A quantitative study examined expectations of students from mainland China and Hong Kong regarding studying abroad post-Covid 19 and revealed that among the 2,739 respondents, 84 percent showed no interest in studying abroad after the pandemic. Barriers for students to pursue their degrees overseas include travel bans, visa restrictions, and campus lockdowns in destination countries, as well as students’ and their families’ worries about health and safety.
The implications of an early termination of academic exchange programmes are numerous, with logistical challenges an important part of the picture. For Fiona, who left Berkeley when its campus was already largely vacated, there were also significant costs: “I had to leave in a rush, leaving part of my stuff in my old apartment in Berkeley, without having any time to organize my full departure. I wasn’t able to sublet my apartment, thus having to pay my 1,000 USD rent until the end of my planned stay, which was supposed to be two months later.”
Realistically and dramatically for universities' future, international applications are likely to slump. This will threaten universities’ economic resources, considering that international students usually pay higher fees than their domestic counterparts. Such losses will exacerbate the financial problems that many universities already face from increasing competition.
Most universities have high fixed costs, including that of owning and maintaining campuses as well as staffing, giving them little flexibility to cope with a drop in revenues. The countries most concerned are the US, UK, Australia, Japan, Canada and Germany, which currently attract the most international students - who come predominantly from China, India and Brazil. Chinese students are among those more likely to defer any application for a year, reflecting the increased risks from coronavirus and from anti-China sentiment.
Receiving universities are also subject to government policies, such as visa deliverance. For instance, France has been one of the few countries to affirm that it will continue to welcome international students throughout the pandemic. However, Campus France revealed a decrease of 26% in requests for visas and a decrease of 29,7% of issued visas since October 2019. The drop in issued visas may reflect wider concerns that international students will stay longer in France because of postponed exams, and that this will lead to administrative challenges such as the necessity of extending visas. This could also be the result of the economic impact of Covid on students and their families, forcing them to postpone or suppress their mobility plans, or the fact that the drop in the number of visas for school-going minors is due to the non-issuance of Schengen visas for accompanying persons.
Sweden seems to be the only exception to this general rule, with a 13% increase in international student admissions to Swedish universities despite the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Swedish Institute, international admissions have risen from 24,099 in 2019-20, to 27,329 in 2020-21. In conversation with University World news, Washburn, a marketing manager for Study in Sweden, commented: “International students are not only critical in terms of helping the Swedish economy recover from the corona[virus] crisis, they are also an important source of skilled labour for Swedish companies and they provide an important international dimension to classrooms at Swedish universities”.
However, it is important to note that because of the need to adapt quickly, universities have managed to find silver linings in the midst of these challenges. There are many advantages to virtual learning and over 60% of higher education institutions around the world increased their virtual mobility platforms during the pandemic. Such changes have the potential to lower the costs associated with international travel, and to expand and democratize access to higher education. The enhancement of digital infrastructure and the shift to more blended formats and/or online learning could increase the opportunities both in terms of incoming and outgoing mobility for students, as well as academics.
Finally, connecting online to different parts of the world can bring its own challenges. For Fiona, the biggest issue was the time difference. “Since my online classes were all in the California time zone, most of it took place from 6pm to 3am (french time). Participation was not mandatory, but we knew that some teachers were grading according to the students' attendance. I wasn’t living on the same timetable as my family and following classes by night was sometimes exhausting, but I graduated without any problem.”
In conclusion, students deprived of their academic mobility will suffer from different kinds of impacts. Online classes do not provide the same type of life-learning experience. For one, mobility is a window to the world which provides students with new cultural experiences. From their own homes, students cannot have the same experience on international campuses that they may have imagined. Moreover, there are also challenges in terms of equity and access to the technologies needed to fully engage in virtual learning, as well as in assuring the quality of virtual programming. Finally, there is a risk that online campuses will be seen as a less rewarding experience when compared to ‘traditional’ physical mobility. Some students invest years of effort to obtain the best possible results in order to secure prestigious academic exchanges, but in an online world could be deprived of the fruits of their labor.
This article is the fourth of six pieces in a series entitled 'Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective', which presents the impact of Covid 19 on higher education. Through the stories of Sasha, Iris, Fiona, Quentin, and others, we invite you to explore the wider pattern of students’ experiences, their difficulties, their distress and their doubts, in addition to the challenges faced by teachers and university staff. The article series is part of a broader project at the Sciences Po Law Clinic investigating inequalities in higher education in France, and is delivered by Elodie Faïd, Fiona Vanston and Inès Girard, three Master’s students in Human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po Paris working with Right to Education Initiative.
A new instalment in the series will launch each Wednesday. Read the pieces published so far, and find out more about our work on higher education here.
Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective
- Article 1: University students in the time of Covid-19: the sacrificed generation?
- Article 2: Covid-19 and technical difficulties: the rise of inequalities in higher education
- Article 3: What happens when the ‘best years of your life’ are actually the hardest? The particular challenges faced by first-year university students during the pandemic
- Article 5: Mental health: the silent pandemic in higher education
- Article 6: "All of my income disappeared overnight": economic precarity for students during the pandemic
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