International education in the era of Covid-19: walking the talk
“Ironically…I find myself in the position of one of the international students whose future I am now involved in planning”
“As countries around the world prepare to unwind nationwide lockdowns and move to a more sustainable way of containing the Covid-19 pandemic, universities are beginning to plan for a resumption of classes on campus,” writes professor Nigel Healey, associate vice-president (Global Engagement) at the University of Limerick.
Most institutions are considering some form of ‘flipped classroom’, with theoretical content delivered online and face-to-face teaching limited to tutorials and laboratory sessions to allow for social distancing.
High on the list of concerns is the impact of Covid-19 on international students. Most obviously, it is unclear how quickly cross-border travel restrictions will be lifted and scheduled commercial flights restarted. Some potential students may be reluctant to leave their home countries, for fear of another outbreak.
But a major worry is how international students will adjust to the culture shock of arriving in a foreign country and finding that most of their learning has to be done remotely in their hall of residence, with limited opportunities to mix with other students and immerse themselves in the language and culture of their host country.
“High on the list of concerns is the impact of Covid-19 on international students”
As an academic, I have lived and worked in a number of countries, from the United States and Belarus to China and Fiji. I have benefitted hugely from interacting with colleagues and co-authors around the world. And for the last 20 years, I have been heavily involved in internationalisation, trying to build a global and inclusive learning environment for all students – domestic and international – through a blend of international student recruitment and support, international student exchange and internationalisation at home.
Ironically, at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, I find myself in the position of one of the international students whose future I am now involved in planning.
A few short weeks ago, I was coming to the end of my contract at Fiji National University. Until mid-March, Fiji was Covid-19 free. Then, in the space of a couple of days, the first Covid-19 case was announced in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia closed their borders to non-citizens and air travel in the Asia-Pacific began closing down. I could hear the sound of border gates slamming shut behind me as I travelled up to the UK.
I arrived in the UK for 14 days’ self-isolation, then started a new role in mid-April at the University of Limerick (UL) as Associate Vice-President (Global Engagement) and Professor of International Higher Education. As both Ireland and the UK were in full lockdown, I started work remotely from our family home in Nottinghamshire, 600km away. It has been an interesting and illuminating journey since.
” I could hear the sound of border gates slamming shut behind me as I travelled up to the UK”
There are new people to get to know, new systems and procedures to navigate, a new organisational culture to master and new language to acquire – like higher education systems everywhere, Ireland boasts a bewildering array of impenetrable acronyms.
Starting a new job at a new institution is challenging in normal circumstances. Settling in from 600km away when every conversation is via MS teams and Skype for Business, mostly with cameras turned off to preserve audio quality, is something else.
The last month has provided a raft of insights into the way we will need to redesign our orientation, induction and ongoing student support systems for international students joining us in 2020/21. UL is famed for the quality of its international student support.
We have won Best Erasmus Programme for the last three years and placed second out of 200 universities for international students’ happiness in the 2019 i-graduate International Student Barometer.
But many of the support services work so well because they are face-to-face, from ‘Meet and Greet’ at the airport to welcome barbeques and social and cultural events to integrate domestic and international students. Migrating many of these services online to allow for social distancing is a daunting prospect.
“The last month has provided a raft of insights into the way we will need to redesign our orientation, induction and ongoing student support systems”
As a Not-So-Secret Shopper, I have been discovering first-hand some of the obstacles to joining a new university when nothing can be done hands-on in person. UL’s digital infrastructure is excellent – and its IT Department responsive and inventive – but many systems and procedures were designed for face-to-face interaction. Off-campus, opening a bank account or applying for a social security number and tax credits requires your physical presence on the ground.
Such occasional frustrations have been more than offset by the support and generosity of my new colleagues in welcoming me into their team.
Given the organisational culture at UL and the demonstrable institutional willingness to redesign our international student support systems to cope with the new reality, I am confident that we will continue to be an attractive study destination for students from around the world. But it will take hard work and it will not be business as usual.
About the author: Professor Nigel Healey is associate vice-president (Global Engagement) at the University of Limerick in Ireland.