The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected our daily lives and put individuals, institutions, and societies to the test in several regards. The new policies adopted by governments to contain the pandemic, and the economic and psychological impact it has had on people, have caused significant changes in higher education systems.
The international travel restrictions, growing fear and anxiety, increasing prejudices, and burden of economic slowdowns, among other factors, could become obstacles for international students willing to attend university abroad. However, the present situation is highly dynamic, and predicting the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on international university education is difficult.
In the latest issue of the East China Normal University (ECNU) Review of Education, four education researchers provide their unique perspectives on how the pandemic will affect international student mobility (ISM) and identity.
In the first article, Dr. Jiao Guo from ECNU, China, focuses on how Chinese students and their families are reacting to the pandemic. She recognizes that many Chinese families are understandably stressed not only because of the health risk that COVID-19 poses, but also by the anti-Chinese sentiment that has sadly become more noticeable in many Western countries.
Guo argues, however, that the effect of the current crisis on Chinese student applications to universities abroad will vary. Based on an emotion-moderated sunk cost theory, a concept borrowed from the fields of economics and business decision-making, she speculates that some Chinese families will remain on course towards a university education overseas, perhaps with a destination change or a delay of a year or two. She says, "These are families with children who have nearly finished their K-12 education in international Chinese schools, who feel that they have already invested too much time, money, and effort into their children's education to change plans. On the other hand, working class families with children in public schools should be more inclined to opt for local education in one of China's universities."
In the second article, Dr. Hantian Wu from Zhejiang University, China, analyzes the prospects for ISM from a historical perspective. He argues that internationalized higher education systems will have to re-predict their development trends and that studying how previous global crises affected the education sector is a plausible strategy for doing so. He goes over several medieval and pre-modern crises, including the Black Death and the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, to prove that higher education systems are remarkably resilient. For instance, Chinese student inflow into Western countries increased considerably in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish flu. Modern history also seems to be consistent with this trend, as observed, for example, post the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Nonetheless, Wu cautions against taking historical events as conclusive evidence: "Discussions about recurring issues in modern history may be convincing, but they also should not be regarded as persuasive evidence for proving that history repeats itself. Still, it seems appropriate to conclude that a single sudden crisis can hardly bring fundamental changes to the overall trend of student mobility."
In the third article, Dr. Jie Zheng from ECNU holds forth that the current pandemic might change how students and policy makers view neoliberal globalization. Dr Zheng argues that the optimism surrounding globalization has been a driving factor for the explosive growth of ISM in the past few years. "In the past two decades, we have been proud of our 'global village' and global vision. We have enjoyed a deterritorialization of social life and free mobility worldwide. Indeed, imagination has been transformed by the media and those narratives of possible lives and fantasies might have stimulated people's desire for movement," she states.
The ongoing pandemic challenges this neoliberal logic of "free trade, free market, free mobility." The focus, she concludes, has inevitably shifted to developing online education systems that could, in the future, open doors to possibilities for a more inclusive and environmentally sustainable society.
But such a society will also depend on the global citizen that emerges from the pandemic. In the fourth article, Dr. Tao Wang from ECNU argues that the breakdown of neoliberal globalization and the dual stigmatization of the Chinese student, both by Chinese nationalists and by nationalists of several other countries, had made the cosmopolitan identity complex.
Yet, he remains optimistic. He says, "I predict that a new generation of 'glocal' citizens will emerge who can navigate smoothly between their local and global identities, understanding global challenges, respecting cultural diversity, and participating in cross-cultural communication. These citizens will bring about the beginning of a shared positive global future."
The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly changing the education landscape for good. But what the new landscape will look like when the dust settles, remains to be seen. Perhaps these new perspectives will prove useful to individuals and organizations who must take action and, willingly or unwillingly, shape the future.