COVID-19 puts a massive strain on international offices

The COVID-19 crisis has had a massive impact on higher education institutions, in particular international professionals in universities. With 209 higher education institutions hosting approximately eight million students, Turkey has a large higher education sector.

In terms of short-term student mobility, the European Union’s Erasmus programme is very popular in Turkish universities and each year approximately 18,000 students from Turkey study abroad under it. Therefore, the spread of the COVID-19 virus across Europe has had a big impact on Turkish students and international professionals working in Turkish universities.

Before coronavirus cases appeared in Turkey, we had already started thinking about the crisis due to emails we were receiving from partner universities where our students were studying. At that point the only concern was the safety of our students in other countries.

How to give advice if you don’t know the answers

The COVID-19 virus spread faster than expected in European countries and this caused an increase in the number of students affected. Students asked our advice about whether to stay or to return. We did not know what to say since it was the first pandemic we had experienced.

Parents started to visit international offices and ask for advice about their children. Then university departments asked us for advice. All the stakeholders in the university expected that international professionals would have sufficient knowledge to predict the future.

Staying or returning issues were so complicated and dependent on individual circumstances that we received contradictory requests. Some students and parents were very anxious and put pressure on our office to help support immediate repatriation. However, some students were indifferent to the situation and put pressure on the international office to give them a scholarship so they could go to Italy in April.

COVID-19 cases started to emerge in Turkey around 10 March and universities switched to online classes on 23 March. Then, as the Erasmus Student Network report indicates, many higher education institutions were not prepared for the rapid changes that occurred. There was a lack of clarity about what to do and it was hard to get consistent reliable information.

Due to the rise of the crisis in Europe, the European Commission announced that Erasmus students could apply for early return under force majeure. Some students returned immediately and were advised to remain in isolation for 14 days. Most students, however, chose to stay in their host countries. In the following weeks, those who had decided to stay contacted us to ask for help in finding a flight home for them.

A variety of cases to deal with

We had four types of outgoing students to deal with: those who stayed in the host country, those who returned home, those who were stuck in a host country and those who were unable to start their mobility programme. Among these, some chose to take courses in their home country and some chose to study in their host country.

Moreover, due to budget restrictions, students had to choose between getting the Erasmus grant that had been calculated before they left Turkey and asking for their expenses to be paid. This situation made Erasmus programme budget management more complicated than before. Moreover, the European Commission allowed students, in particular those who were unable to start their exchange, to postpone their mobility until the following academic year.

We also had three types of incoming students to deal with: those who had stayed in Turkey, those who got stuck in Turkey due to flight restrictions and those who returned home. For those who stayed and got stuck in Turkey, international offices were seen as being responsible for their well-being, health and safety.

Issues included the fact that most student dormitories were closed due to the suspension of face-to-face teaching and that most of the information provided by the government, such as on lockdown rules, was in Turkish.

The most difficult problems

These are some of the most pressing challenges we encountered:

• Some students who had returned wanted to submit documents or to ask questions face-to-face and visited international offices physically, disregarding the 14-day quarantine rules, which was dangerous for international professionals. Later, international professionals transitioned to working from home, which was safer but also made some issues more complicated, especially bureaucratic ones.

• Students who missed last flights home asked for help and international offices had to operate as a coordinating body, working with Turkish embassies, individual national agencies for the Erasmus programme, students and even parents.

• International professionals tried to contact students who got stuck either in Turkey or in a host country and who were scared of contracting COVID-19 abroad, to help them increase their resilience.

• International offices provided information to the relevant authorities about the physical whereabouts of students – but this information was subject to change and needed to be confirmed again and again.

• Some students who decided to stay in host countries contracted COVID-19 and their health insurance did not cover most of their expenses. Helping them was a tiring and emotional process for us. We are still anxious when we open our inbox about the possibility of hearing sad news from students.

Contingency planning for internationalisation

The most challenging task that international professionals have experienced during the coronavirus pandemic was being asked for advice that might affect the lives of students.

We found it very hard to help students make decisions about a situation that was completely beyond our experience. Moreover, at a time of much uncertainty, we have had to make quick decisions and rely on contingency planning.

The most important thing that we have experienced during the crisis has been the imperative for solidarity among international professionals. We asked colleagues in Turkey and in partner countries many questions in order to learn more about what to do. Professional networks have helped a lot to share best practice.

We realised that the only way to get through the situation was to trust the sense of community we have as international educators. Supportive messages from colleagues have helped us to stay strong at this difficult time.

The majority of outgoing and incoming students have now returned home. They are taking courses online either from their home or host university. The ability to tune into synchronised courses despite time zone differences, motivation to study and help with internet connections in their hometown are the main concerns of students whose mobility has been interrupted.

We feel strongly that students need care and attention and international professionals are the first port of call when it comes to their well-being.

Amid all the uncertainty, the Turkish Council of Higher Education has suspended the announcement of selection calls for the autumn term and so we can’t nominate outgoing students or accept incoming ones. Although we are used to completing nominations for the autumn term by the end of May, we have to be patient and continue short-term contingency planning.

As Ahmed Ezzedine, associate vice president for educational outreach and international programmes at Wayne State University in the United States, said earlier in the pandemic: “We have to figure things out day by day. There’s no reason to worry about May or September when we haven’t figured out April yet.”

Betül Bulut Sahin is the coordinator of European mobility in the International Cooperations Office at Middle East Technical University (METU) in Turkey. She holds a PhD in educational administration and planning with a specialisation in internationalisation in higher education. She tries to combine her academic experience with a practical role, giving seminars on different aspects of internationalisation to colleagues working in international offices in universities. She also writes a blog to share her experiences with international officers in Turkey. She is a part-time lecturer at METU in the educational sciences department (E-mail: sbetul@metu.edu.tr).