Celebrating internationalisation’s peacebuilding role

Many people seem to believe that the current pandemic might be an opportunity to ‘right pre-existing wrongs’ and shift the paradigm of higher education internationalisation. According to OECD figures, in 2017 the leading host countries for international students were the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France and Germany. The top three were the US (985,000 students), the UK (436,000) and Australia (381,000).

In the short-term, these figures are likely to change, but, in general, student mobility is likely to outlast the current crisis, with young people across the world continuing to search for educational opportunities abroad.

No longer just a numbers game

On the qualitative side, the questions we should be asking are ‘what do we really expect from internationalisation in the future’ and ‘how can it become more ethical and inclusive?’

In my view, internationalisation should be measured through its ability to address current (and future) global issues, which, in many instances, require a coordinated global response. These issues have multiple dimensions, including social, political and environmental ones, which should be mapped against internationalisation and student mobility.

To achieve this, the focus of internationalisation should shift from a quantitative – the focus on numbers – to a qualitative approach, meaning that global issues should grab the centre stage and an ethical dimension should be incorporated into all aspects of international students’ experiences.

There is another important question, asked decades ago but still relevant now. What are the pros and cons of student migration for receiving societies, sending societies and mobile students themselves? What are the future implications of extensive student mobility for developing economies and their quest to end poverty?


Despite impressive statistics on student mobility, our world is still polarised, xenophobic and racist. On a day-to-day basis we witness growing mistrust between nations and ever-rising nationalism in different parts of the globe.

It is worth noting that disruptions of internationalisation caused by COVID-19 have been exacerbated by the new geo-political shifts (with indirect links to the pandemic). These include the growing tensions between the US and Australia vis a vis China.

China has urged students not to study in Australia, citing racist attacks. This was followed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring that Australia will not surrender its values in response to “coercion” from China and will not be “intimidated by threats”.

Since we are still in the midst of the pandemic and fearing a second wave of infections, it is too early to predict the potential devastating effect it may have on internationalisation and student mobility.

What is obvious now is that more effort should be made with regard to cultural integration and the promotion of diversity as well as with regard to the nurturing of tolerance and mutual acceptance. International students should be primarily viewed as ambassadors of their home countries, building bridges between nations which could help to avoid conflicts in the long term.


Internationalisation should be supplemented by regionalisation, promoting South to South mobility of students, which can help contribute to peace and stability within regions.

Countries like India, China, Malaysia, South Africa and Brazil can build upon their higher education capacities and become new regional poles of academic attraction.

For example, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) is a pan-African centre of excellence which annually takes a diverse mix of approximately 70 students from around 25 different African countries. The mission of AIMS is to develop independent thinkers, researchers and problem solvers who will contribute to Africa’s development.

There is little doubt that equipping regional graduates with the skills and education they need will help countries to address the challenges they face in their home countries. There is room for further regional hubs of knowledge, science and research.

The theory and practice of internationalisation has been constantly evolving. As it continues to do so, there is a need for it to be more socially relevant and focused on finding solutions to current and future global challenges.

In today’s world with its mounting global problems, such as how to prevent future pandemics and other natural or man-made catastrophes, there is no place for closed borders and narrow-minded nationalism.

These concerns should be reflected in the domain of internationalisation and student mobility as these have the potential to bring young minds together from around the globe and encourage them to view the world as one family, despite its imperfections.

Tatiana Belousova is an assistant professor at the International Institute for Higher Education Research and Capacity Building, OP Jindal Global University, India.