Is the pandemic a watershed for internationalisation?

There is no shortage of commentary on the ramifications of COVID-19 for the higher education sector generally and the internationalisation agenda in particular. The opinions expressed are sharply divided: while some appeal for calm, arguing that the impact will only be temporary, others argue that the COVID-19 crisis will change higher education forever.

The emotional tenor of these commentaries is equally divided: some convey a sense of fear, uncertainty and loss, while others express hope, excitement even, about the possibilities opened up by the closing of borders.

How can we explain these different perspectives on the same phenomenon? Perhaps it all depends on how we define internationalisation and its relationship to international travel.

For decades the internationalisation of higher education has been regarded as synonymous with global mobility. Reified and quantified, mobility has been seen as an end in itself, rather than a means of connectivity through research, teaching and learning. Policy and practice in higher education has created and reinforced a distinction between home and abroad.

However, since the 1990s, the sector’s dependence on mobility has attracted a growing number of critics.

Clearly, international travel is elitist: it is only a possibility for a minority of students and in terms of outbound students from the Global North, these are often white, female and economically advantaged.

Perhaps the strongest critique of mobility programmes, both inbound and outbound, from an educational perspective is the missed opportunities they represent due to the large scale failure to better integrate students’ diverse international and intercultural experiences at home into the curriculum for all students.

In short, while mobility has enormous potential as a transformative educational experience, it is an exclusive activity and its impact on individuals is variable.

In spite of growing criticism of the sector’s reification of mobility and the substantial development of internationalisation of the curriculum as a focus of research and practice, universities have, on the whole, remained addicted to flying – until now, that is.

For the foreseeable future, if internationalisation is to remain a defining feature of university life, we must re-imagine internationalisation.

Global learning during the pandemic

Some commentators, such as Kalyani Unkule, hope that the current restrictions on physical movement across the globe will bring about a “shift away from a focus on mobility which privileges the already privileged towards engaging with globalisation and its discontents more proactively”.

Likewise, Robin Helms argues that the current pandemic, “ironically enough, illustrates exactly why we need … students who understand global phenomena, can see xenophobic and culture-bound reactions for what they are, and are prepared to work with colleagues around the world to address global crises”.

A considerable body of research is already available to help us rethink, re-design and re-enact internationalisation in a non-mobile world. The term global learning, as defined by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, for example, provides universities with a way of conceptualising and developing a curriculum that engages all students in “the critical analysis of and an engagement with complex, interdependent global systems and legacies … and their implications for people’s lives and the earth’s sustainability”.

Empirical studies conducted on internationalising the curriculum provide insights into the process of designing for and assessing such global learning in many disciplinary and geo-political contexts.

Like many, we see the disruption to ‘business as usual’ in universities as an opportunity to re-examine the purpose and intended impact of internationalisation on teaching and learning.

In our forthcoming chapter, ‘Curriculum integration: Maximising the impact of education abroad for all students’, in Education Abroad: Bridging Scholarship and Practice, we discuss the concept of curriculum integration as a range of approaches to maximising students’ learning through international and intercultural experiences.

In this chapter different interpretations of the term curriculum integration are conceptualised as a continuum. At one end, the goal is to maximise the learning of students undertaking optional education abroad experiences (we label this as ‘exclusive’), while at the other the goal is to maximise the international or intercultural learning of all students “by integrating mobile students’ international experiences and intercultural learning into the curriculum at home” (which we label as ‘inclusive’).

While this chapter was written before the outbreak of COVID-19, it is perhaps even more relevant now that we are all ‘grounded’ and physically separated from each other. The chapter presents Townsin and Walsh’s (2016) ‘border-crossing pedagogy’ as a model for international education curriculum design, which untethers global learning from mobility.

The focus is, rather, on a pedagogy of encounter, on supporting students to engage in respectful conversations with (cultural) others at home, which, according to Hilary Kahn and Melanie Agnew in a 2017 paper in the Journal of Studies in International Education, is “one of the few non-negotiable universals of global learning”.

A pedagogy of encounter is a powerful concept because it does not rely on mobility. There are many opportunities to engage students in intercultural and global learning in class, on campus and in local communities. Thanks to large-scale global migration in recent decades, as well as the widening participation agenda, in many countries ‘local’ students are more diverse than they have ever been.

This diversity represents a rich opportunity for global learning at home, and when done well, online learning can avoid the reification of travel and open up the possibility of ‘border crossing’ for all students. Programmes such as Collaborative Online International Learning and virtual internships, combined with meaningful intercultural learning encounters on campus and in local communities, offer exciting potential to engage all students in meaningful intercultural learning on a global scale during the pandemic.

However, the transition to online learning is provoking panic-gogy in many quarters, as faculty and students adjust en masse to the online learning environment at an unprecedented pace. This undertaking cannot be accomplished by faculty alone. Students, faculty and IT experts, learning designers and student support staff will need to continue to work together on this project.

Born of necessity, the sudden tilt to online learning is rapidly changing our habits and reshaping our thinking. But where might these changes lead? What might this new experience of global learning while at home mean for internationalisation in the longer term, when some of us can travel once again?

Global learning beyond the pandemic

History suggests that watershed moments – those momentous events from which societies emerge fundamentally changed – can only be recognised in hindsight. Is the pandemic a watershed moment for internationalisation?

The sector may emerge more adept and sophisticated in online pedagogy, with a better understanding of opportunities to provide global learning experiences at home. But will we, post-pandemic, see a more permanent shift in emphasis: a shift away from mobility as an elite activity and the primary means of internationalisation of the curriculum to global learning for all based on an inclusive pedagogy of intercultural encounter at home?

This will surely require continued cooperation between a broad range of actors – students, faculty, IT services, student support staff and others – working in partnership to create good, engaging learning online.

This crisis provoked by COVID-19 has radically changed the way we teach and engage with our colleagues and partners. Will it lead in the long term to more inclusive approaches to global learning? Or will we simply slip back into our old ways of thinking about and being international in higher education, with a primary focus on exclusive approaches focused on mobility for a minority of students?

Dr Wendy Green is senior lecturer (adjunct) at the School of Education, University of Tasmania, Australia, and an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow. Betty Leask is emerita professor of internationalisation at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, and visiting professor at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. E-mail:


Cheng Yi'En on the University World News Facebook page: This is a timely piece for educators and practitioners thinking about what to do with 'international' or 'global' learning in a time of suspended mobility. It is important to challenge the elitism that underpins international travel privileging a minority of students across the world. But overseas travel need not be an elite activity. Humans, regardless of social stratum, have been travelling to places and across borders throughout history. The real challenge is for those people and institutions with and in power to ‘undo’ the system and to create the conditions for mobility to be accessed and experienced in more equal ways. More importantly, there is also the materiality of places-afar that may provoke discomfort, awe, empathy, and a host of emotions and imaginations – negative and positive – that cannot be replicated easily through ‘at-home’ pedagogical settings or virtual means.

So indeed, we need to dismantle the elitist aspects of international travel and mobility, especially during this pandemic duration which is a rare opportunity to do that. But we need to take careful strides and not lose sight of the power of in situ learning that involves actual travel across borders and cultures. These are not mutually exclusive approaches; both are needed and equally powerful if done right. Just as travelling can reinforce privilege and elitism, 'at-home' pedagogies may risk the perception that global problems can be solved in the comforts of one's home.

Let’s not forget that the world and its geography is very real and tangible. After all, this remains true even if we strip away all those fetishistic imaginations about internationalism peddled by neoliberal universities.