Post-Covid, internationalisation must be more flexible


Austria is currently leading the European nations in easing its lockdown measures, having largely contained Covid-19. Yet Austrian universities remain deeply affected by the pandemic, and very uncertain about how “normal” the conditions into which they are re-emerging will really be – particularly regarding internationalisation.

At Graz University of Technology in Austria, about 40 per cent of our foreign exchange students have returned to their home countries, while 45 per cent of our own students have come back from abroad. This situation seems unlikely to be significantly reversed any time soon.

It is generally agreed that an effective vaccine is still a while away, so health and safety considerations are likely to become key criteria for prospective students deciding on their host countries in the short to mid-term. With the epidemic statistics and associated responses of different nations under constant media spotlight these days, prospective students are likely to favour nations that have been least affected and/or demonstrated robust responses. Those that make tangible efforts to assure their status as “safe countries” – and offer students access to high-quality health services – can gain a competitive edge.

We can see that there are distinctive and regional variations in terms of containment strategies and reactions of the general public. For example, populations in Asia generally accept the most severe lockdown and social distancing measures, whereas in Europe and the US a more flexible approach has generally been adopted. Such regional behavioural differences may start to affect students’ choices in the mid and long term, with Asian students, in particular, potentially preferring universities within their region. Might the same happen within Europe? Many of us in the internationalisation sector will be monitoring this closely in the coming months and years.

The current crisis has also accelerated the implementation and acceptance of remote teaching and learning. Like those of many universities across the world, our activities, where possible, have been moved online since March – including social activities for international students. However, in addition to the practical challenges such as adapting the curriculum and ensuring reliable access for both faculty and students, there is an additional important aspect to consider. A major benefit of student mobility is the invaluable exposure it offers to different educational approaches. However, this depends in large measure on physical presence and active engagement with fellow students and university faculty.

Therefore, a sustainable post-Covid internationalisation effort will need to embrace the potential of remote, digital learning while maintaining the benefits of student mobility. Even before the crisis, the European Commission had announced plans to introduce more flexible mobility formats for its next framework programme, introducing the concept of “blended mobility”. This combines short-term physical mobility with “virtual mobility”. It is likely that the current situation will accelerate the adoption of this and other hybrid student mobility concepts more widely. However, it is not yet clear what role personal motivations will play in this regard. For example, will the urge of students to rediscover personal freedom and other cultures be even greater after this period of restricted social contact and limited mobility? If so, the virtual parts of mobility programmes may be viewed as added extras rather than core elements.

As the lockdowns translate into a substantial global economic downturn, it is likely that enhancing employability by developing transversal skills abroad will become an increasingly attractive option for many people. It was reported in the commission’s 2019 Erasmus+ impact study that the majority of surveyed exchange students found their experience beneficial for finding their first job. They also reported that it had increased their technical, interpersonal and intercultural skills. These associated benefits, we believe, will continue to play an important role post-Covid and should figure prominently in promotional efforts for mobility programmes.

Furthermore, it is expected that the economic impacts from the Covid-19 crisis will be felt more keenly in developing countries and those that were already experiencing weak growth before the crisis. Therefore, offering career support for exchange students from these regions may become an increasingly important task; surveys suggest that it is already regarded by Asian students as an important consideration when choosing a university. This may include not only facilitating local opportunities for qualified students, but also developing a better understanding of the employment landscape and requirements in their home countries.

While internationalisation will continue to offer numerous benefits post-Covid, it can only continue to flourish if universities embrace the challenges and adapt quickly to the new world we are entering.

Author Bios: Barbara Lorber is an internationalisation coordinator and Sabine Prem is director of the international office at Graz University of Technology.