The future of international HE in a post-mobility world

Borders are closed. Consulates shuttered. Planes are parked. Study abroad suspended. International students are being sent home. And we are hunkered down in our homes in a sudden, harsh, no-mobility world.

This complete shutdown of mobility has exposed an existing reality: We already live in a world in which mobility is not necessary, and sometimes perhaps not even desirable, for meaningful cross-border exchange or an international education.

Overnight, courses have moved massively, and exclusively, online and international students are continuing to study while sitting at home in their own countries. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of international meetings are taking place daily on Zoom, bringing people meaningfully together across cultures, borders, distance and in the literal absence of mobility.

These events as a consequence of COVID-19 have hastened the dawn of a new post-mobility world, or one in which physical travel is unnecessary for the creation and transmission of knowledge across borders.

Limitations of mobility

International education has long and mostly been interchangeably viewed through the lens of mobility. While internationalisation has been broadly defined to cover a wide range of activities, it is predominantly regarded as a border-crossing phenomenon.

With travel drastically reduced, university leaders are now grappling with substantial revenue loss and projected cutbacks, based on university dependencies on physically mobile students. Rather than viewing such problems from an old and limiting paradigm, we propose a shift towards a post-mobility perspective.

Well before COVID-19, there was scepticism about the necessity of physical mobility in international education, with the rise of internationalisation at home, branch campuses and microcampuses and scaled global online education as examples.

Moreover, mobility has always been a limiting concept, accessible to only a tiny fraction of those who might benefit from access to transborder higher education.

Regardless of current events, the demand for higher education will persist and grow. Indeed, hundreds of millions of people around the world lack access to higher education. This number is anticipated to increase, particularly with rising population growth in low-income countries that are already unable to accommodate current demand.

To continue operating from a former mobility world paradigm that is dependent on face-to-face interactions and physical travel would only intensify competition for a relatively small supply of moveable students and scholars. Meanwhile, the vast potential of internationalisation remains untapped and most of the world’s students remain unserved.

Another trend challenging mobility is the rise of protectionist political agendas throughout the world, raising scepticism about the value of internationalisation in comparison to national interests.

Anti-immigrant proposals and policies, such as travel bans, limiting international research collaboration in allegedly sensitive areas, restrictions on work visas and limits on international engagement are some of the perceived threats to mobility. Post-mobility models of internationalisation, in contrast, can transcend such political barriers.

Alternative models

With the sudden closure of physical facilities, faculty and students, regardless of their past training and experience, are being exposed to online learning. With this mass pivot, it has been predicted that higher education professionals will get used to working remotely and be less likely to return to “old habits of gathering”.

A wider role for online learning, online recruitment methods and a rise in teleconferencing have been predicted as some of the “residuals” to remain long past the immediate threat of COVID-19.

This shift towards online is long overdue considering the changing generations of traditional-aged college students. For the most part, Generation Z, or post-millennials, do not know a world without the internet. They are highly tech-savvy and are high consumers of social media, almost three hours daily.

In our current post-mobility world, the internet, including social media, are powerful communication channels and educational technology has made huge advances, making better-than-classroom distance learning a present-day reality.

When it comes to international education in this post-mobility context, branch campuses, microcampuses, online learning and other such forms of transnational education are less dependent on physical travel. These alternative modes of learning have mostly remained intact while traditional mobility programmes will continually be vulnerable when physical mobility is impractical or impossible.

The post-mobility world is less space bound, allowing for international partnerships to change from exporting education to collaborative models that use multinational expertise and situate education locally, while still building meaningful connections across borders and cultures.


Access and cost control: A core deficiency of mobility-based internationalisation is that it is accessible to only a few, meaning the wealthy and well-connected or the lucky few who secure funding or fellowships.

Despite lingering detractors, technology-enhanced online learning holds real promise in offering high-quality, individualised and low-cost education at scale. The supposed trade-off between quality and scale is now mostly a defensive argument against change rather than an accurate reflection of current technological possibilities.

For example, virtual and augmented reality can give students the feel of being ‘present’ in a distant classroom from a locally-placed high-tech learning centre or even their own kitchen table – eliminating the need for bricks and mortar campuses or the cost of studying abroad.

Moreover, a collaborative online model in which local university faculty co-teach with international faculty to deliver online courses could bend the cost curve, allowing high-touch online learning at the cost of a local degree – while encouraging knowledge transfer and building capacity in the process.

Environmental sustainability: Post-mobility models of international education could also be a boon to the environment. According to one study, emissions as a result of international student mobility have doubled in five years, from 1999 to 2014, representing a sharper increase than overall global emissions.

Recent efforts by organisations and universities demonstrate a growing awareness that physical mobility comes with real costs to the environment and the world and that such costs may at times outweigh the equally real benefits of in-person exchange and cultural immersion.

Even though mobility has indisputable benefits, it is time to responsibly consider its real costs as well. From a post-mobility lens, further internationalisation plans should question whether travel is always necessary or a net-plus from a social costs perspective.

Combatting brain drain: Post-mobility models of internationalisation could also help address rising criticisms that international education is overly dominated by the Global North, resulting in brain drain in sending countries.

In a traditional mobility world, students are faced with the difficult choice of whether to leave home and when or whether to return. In a post-mobility world, students would not need to commit to a single geographic location and could also pursue an international education at home or elsewhere. Furthermore, from a post-mobility perspective, knowledge transfer is unbound from physical location and learning becomes re-situated when possible in the home country.

In sum, student mobility, as commonly referred to as physical mobility across national borders, was an antiquated approach to international education even prior to the current pandemic. In the coming post-pandemic age, it is high time for universities to fully consider the post-mobility world in which we now live and remove mobility from its perch as the sine qua non of internationalisation.

Brent White is a professor of law and vice provost for global affairs at the University of Arizona, United States. Jenny J Lee is a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.


Brigitte Martin on the University World News Facebook page: Despite the efforts that our organisations will have to make to foster a growing awareness of the global challenges linked to the fields of knowledge and of the costs of mobility, which can sometimes outweigh the benefits – the fact remains that contact and cultural exchange in person and in the cultural context of the country will be a significant loss that online courses will not make up for. The short-term solution would be to encourage these intercultural exchanges, but locally, with immigrants who are with us in our localities, so that a real contact can help to raise awareness of the differences and social responsibilities that we all have, to one another – something this pandemic is in the process of reminding us of.