Driving resilience and renewal through mobility in higher education

María-Eugenia Marín, General Director for International Relations, IE University, takes a sharp look at the challenges faced by international higherEd and the shape of things to come.

María-Eugenia Marín, General Director for International Relations, IE University, takes a sharp look at the challenges faced by international higher-Ed and the shape of things to come.

With kind acknowledgements to Prof. Concepción Galdón

International education: Keeping it alive and kicking

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and dismantled international academic mobility as we know it.  What has always been an integral part of the higher education landscape must now find direction in uncertain and unchartered waters. International student enrollment numbers are dropping and study abroad and exchange programs have been cancelled or postponed, at least in the short term.  Around the globe, degree programs have moved online and many will continue in either a hybrid or fully online format during the next academic term. This scenario coupled with lockdowns, travel bans and restrictions, and health and safety concerns, have forced higher education institutions to rethink and reassess their models.

Set-backs are not new to international higher education. In recent years the sector has been subject to increasing tensions around mobility resulting from populism, nationalist tendencies, and strong public anti-immigration discourses. The long list of strategic and financial set-backs created by the pandemic has now been added to the already existing list of political and regulatory barriers to international mobility.  For this reason, it is more necessary than ever to find ways of keeping cross-border mobility alive and kicking. To this end, global partnerships and alliances between universities as well as mobility programs such as Erasmus+ need to be fostered and preserved. They serve as a catalyst for a very important task entrusted to higher education institutions – to prepare globally-minded citizens with a broader understanding and vision of the world around them.  

Going mobile brings its benefits

María-Eugenia Marín, General Director for International Relations, IE University, takes a sharp look at the challenges faced by international higherEd and the shape of things to come.

International mobility has been an integral part of higher education since the founding of the first universities in 12th and 13th century Europe.  By the year 1300, close to twenty-three universities had sprouted throughout the European continent and shared a teaching model and language of delivery – Latin. This greatly facilitated what was then referred to as peregrinatio academica (academic mobility), and created a space for knowledge sharing across Europe in a wide spectrum of fields. European universities opened their doors to visiting lecturers in theology, humanism, medicine and law from other European centers of learning. These university scholars were often joined at these lectures by their own students. Hence international academic mobility was born, acting as a catalyst for the cross-pollination and dissemination of knowledge and thought at the root of western culture.

The benefits of internationalization in higher education are undeniable. Over the last decades, cross-border collaborations in research have contributed to important advancements in a wide array of fields ranging from science and health, engineering and technology, to social and business sciences.  Globally-oriented universities have become fertile ground for the recruitment of diverse and globally-minded talent by public and private institutions alike. Innovative start-ups that have revolutionized industries have been created and nurtured in university campuses that bring together students from multidisciplinary and multicultural backgrounds. Scholarship programs and new online formats have also allowed universities to created impact and facilitate access beyond their borders.

In this uncertain educational environment, technology has played a pivotal role in unveiling new opportunities for university collaborations across borders. Virtual student exchanges and summer programs as well as virtual cross-border projects and activities are only a few of the initiatives that have emerged across the higher education sector in response to international mobility constraints, consequence of the COVID-19 outbreak.  But more importantly the pandemic has given universities the opportunity to redefine and reshape internationalization, making it broader, more inclusive and more aligned with the new reality we are currently confronting.

The transformation underway

COVID and the future of student mobility
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Internationalization in this new paradigm needs a more comprehensive focus on sustainability, diversity and equality. By committing to educate environmentally responsible students that understand the value of diversity and equality, universities can help navigate this crisis and contribute to building a more sustainable and equitable world anchored on respect, tolerance and mutual understanding.

From the experience of the current crisis, international mobility post-COVID will be transformed.  It will not only be broader in scope but will also offer greater customization based on a student’s particular needs and resources. Despite its limitations, virtual mobility will most likely coexist with more traditional forms of presential mobility, making available some of the benefits of an international experience to those that are unable – for any reason – to physically participate in a cross border experience. Technology will also enable and enhance maximum levels of overall interconnectedness. Physical or presential mobility will however never be extinguished. An in-person, face-to-face international experience can never be replicated or replaced. One must breathe the air and physically explore a new environment to fully reap its benefits.

There is no substitute for the rich learning and teaching environment made possible through the internationalization of higher education. Study abroad and other cross-border experiences take students out of their comfort zone and exposes them to different cultural mind sets, languages, environments, and helps them develop critical soft skills and necessary transversal skills such as the ability to adapt and respond to uncertainty and change. To solve pressing global problems, we will need global solutions developed and implemented by globally-minded talent in a constantly changing world.

COVID and the future of student mobility

The pandemic has significantly altered higher education and the recovery will undoubtedly take some time.  Apart from all the current hurdles that will need to be overcome, the consequences of a looming global recession will create further uncertainty in the sector and will directly impact international activity even after restrictions are lifted and regular activities are resumed. In the meantime, universities need to make their campuses safe and take the appropriate measures to reduce risks and pave the way for a full recovery of their educational operations. To ensure the collective wellbeing of society, cross-border knowledge sharing and mobility must be protected and preserved. Universities must also engage in collaborative efforts within the higher education ecosystem to streamline cross border flows of talent and knowledge.

Throughout time, international mobility has weathered many storms, and the current crises is no exception. With every obstacle that is overcome and conquered universities will have acquired greater resilience, agility and wisdom.  Obstacles are often opportunities waiting to reveal themselves.

Maria-Eugenia Marin

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