The “International University” in an Immobile World: rethinking internationalisation in the Covid-19 era

Hannah Moscovitz


Academic mobility has long constituted a dominant feature of universities’ internationalisation agendas. Commonly viewed as the backbone of academic internationalisation, the transnational movement of students, researchers and faculty benefits an array of stakeholders, including nation-states/regions; higher education institutions and individuals participating in these practices. From a territorial politics perspective, academic mobility has been advanced as a tool for public diplomacy as well as a “pipeline” to labour market shortages. For academic institutions, the strength of internationalisation agendas is in many ways contingent upon the degree to which their students, faculty and overall knowledge production are “mobile”. As an important indicator for global university rankings, mobility also contributes to a university’s global standing and reputation. Finally, through their mobility, individuals gain global citizenship skills, enhance their employability, or strengthen their academic professional profiles.

Yet, at each of these levels; the political, institutional and individual- the reliance on mobility has also engendered significant disparities (Bilecen & Van Mol, 2017). The growing intersection between knowledge and mobility exacerbates existing inequalities and raises important questions as to who actually benefits from internationalisation? The drastic and sudden slowing down of transborder movement resulting from the Covid-19 Pandemic, provides an opportunity to take stock of the connection between mobility and internationalisation, and question its stability. It also calls for a reconceptualisation of academic internationalisation. What kind of agenda for internationalisation might evolve and how might notions of (in)equality be considered?

Virtual academic conferences- levelling the playing field?

The 2020 academic conference circuit saw planned events move to virtual platforms offering valuable test-cases for future conferences amid the Pandemic. While many would argue for the value of holding academic conferences in person, the sudden shift to online events opens up new ways of thinking about how to effectively organise academic dialogue and knowledge exchange. The online platform arguably allows for a more inclusive participation and engagement of scholars and students which may have otherwise been prevented from attending. Whether it be a lack of funding for travel or difficulties obtaining visas to attend international conferences, these do not benefit everyone equally. Eliminating the barriers related to the costs or bureaucracy of international travel, the virtual model can promote a more inclusive arrangement. It also, albeit indirectly, answers a call from researchers and activists to reduce the carbon footprint emanated from international conferences. 

Internationalisation in an immobile world: a renewed appreciation for “internationalisation at home”?

The conflating of internationalisation with mobility has contributed to the deepening of an unequal “playing field” in the internationalisation of higher education. Take for example, the case of international student exchanges. It is commonly argued that these activities remain limited to segments of the student population who can afford them and, in this way, lead to the “reinforcement of an already privileged status” (Scott, 2010). In an effort to advance a more equitable arrangement, proponents of internationalisation at home have long called for an embedding of international experiences in domestic learning environments (Beelsen & Jones, 2010). Integrating international and intercultural components within curriculum and learning experiences, it is argued, has the potential to narrow the gap perpetuated by the dominant approach to internationalisation, by taking into consideration the “immobile”.

Now that the proportion of “immobile” has skyrocketed- might the Pandemic bring a new appreciation for internationalisation at home as a policy? With cross-border mobility at a standstill and online classes becoming increasingly normalised, the embedding of international experiences to domestic contexts is facilitated. Inviting international faculty members to lecture for instance, has become much easier in this context. In short, the activities surrounding internationalisation from “within”, which have until now been largely side-lined, have the potential to gain traction in the current context. The values and ideals behind internationalisation at home can be harnessed towards a renewed outlook on internationalisation, one which departs from its prevailing dependence on mobility. This is, however, not an easy task as the current market-driven agenda behind academic internationalisation poses a challenge to alternative perspectives.

The marketisation of international higher education and international students

The prevailing economic rationales and marketisation agendas behind knowledge mobility and specifically student mobility, have led to a push to reopen these “markets”. This is evidenced for instance in the Australian case, where a pilot programme for the return of international students to South Australia has recently been launched. Opening the border for international students to the region, while closing it for residents of the locked down Victoria State, reflects the urgency felt by the Australian government to maintain its reputation as a global student destination and its place on the international student “market”.

The marketisation of international students and their perception as “cash cows” for national economies also presents a set of ethical questions related to the responsibility of the “host” countries towards them during global challenges. International students, stranded in their host countries, are among the vulnerable groups impacted by the Pandemic. Their pigeonholing as customers challenges the proper assessment of, and responses to their specific needs. Hence, in the short-term, there are numerous issues related to responsibility of institutions and governments vis à vis international students faced with university closures, loss of income and lockdowns.

Towards a post- pandemic internationalisation agenda

More broadly, this critical juncture provides the opportunity to take a long-term perspective on what kind of model might be developed for the Post-Covid internationalisation agenda. While we all hope for a “silver bullet” solution and reverting back to pre-pandemic conditions, we should also seize this opportunity to design more equitable approaches to internationalisation. As a starting point, such a blueprint could include a deepening of internationalisation at home policy and practice, as well as the design of a model for an “ethics of mobility” around internationalisation as proposed by Fahey and Kenway in their 2010 article. Indeed, while currently stalled, it is hard to believe that mobility will cease to be a central feature of internationalisation, particularly in light of the strong market imperatives underpinning it. Understanding the inequalities inherent in mobility and finding ways to narrow them are critical. The opportunity to pause and rethink internationalisation and its connection to mobility, supports the need to challenge dominant approaches and pave the way for a more accessible and just international higher education space.


Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Hannah Moscovitz is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education. Hannah’s current research on nation branding in multinational societies is funded by the Israel Science Foundation.

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