Rethinking internationalisation post pandemic and war

The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war have changed the landscape of the internationalisation of higher education (IoHE) and challenged existing conceptualisations and frameworks for understanding IoHE. This has led to debates on what IoHE is and what IoHE is for.

The traditional definition may limit our understanding of the changing nature of IoHE. As such, there is an emerging call for IoHE for society, a concept explored by Uwe Brandenburg, Hans de Wit, Elspeth Jones and Betty Leask in an article in University World News, published on 20 April 2019.

The concept has seen further elaboration in a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) report in 2020 and a scholarly article in the Journal of Studies in International Education in 2021.

While IoHE for society addresses the need to align internationalisation and higher education institutions’ third mission, it remains relatively abstract as a conceptual framework.

A model of policy logics of IoHE, proposed by a recently published book on Building Higher Education Cooperation with the EU in Brill’s book series Global Perspectives on Higher Education, may help concretise the concept of IoHE for society and also capture the essence of IoHE before and during the pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war.

The framework is based on a two-dimensional typology. The first dimension refers to the degree of alignment between policies for IoHE and the national drivers of international political cooperation.

The second dimension is the alignment between policies for IoHE and the national drivers of international economic cooperation.

Depending on the levels of alignment in respect of both dimensions, four types of internationalisation of higher education are identified. IoHE for broad societal engagement has a high alignment between internationalisation policies and a country’s international economic and political cooperation, while IoHE for expansion of soft power has a high alignment with a country’s international political cooperation, but scores low on economic cooperation.

IoHE for global talents and advanced knowledge scores high on economic alignment and low on political alignment, while IoHE for enhancing global reputations of higher education institutions and systems scores low on both forms of alignment.

Interaction with the EU

From the policy logics perspective, the changes of IoHE in the post-pandemic era can be best understood if we consider how the pandemic and other related or coincidental factors that emerged during the period have influenced the political and economic drivers for international cooperation.

The changing dynamics in political and economic drivers for international cooperation and their influences on IoHE can be observed in Brazil, China and Russia’s cooperation with the European Union in light of the pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war.

In Brazil, policies supporting the well-known ‘Science without Borders’ programme that sent 100,000 Brazilian students abroad was based on the logic of IoHE for enhancing the reputation of higher education institutions. The experience with this programme created a strong awareness of IoHE among the Brazilian public.

Consequently, in the years prior to 2020, most institutions included indicators of IoHE in their strategic plans and academics actively searched for partners abroad. These links became a strategic resource for higher education institutions in the middle of the pandemic.

The first assessments carried out by universities and NGOs show that many higher education institutions, both in the private and the public sectors, used the links their academics had forged with peers abroad to ensure a presence for the institution even during periods when access to the campus was closed entirely. Of course, the best-endowed research universities fared better than the rest.

However, in general, all higher education institutions actively explored alternatives for bringing international speakers to their seminars, supporting graduate students in online academic venues and through other similar online activities.

Even if these experiences were not enough, they minimised the pandemic’s impact on institutional strategies for internationalisation. For some institutions, these strategies even created real opportunities for enhancing their global reputation.

Because the initiative for establishing connections was mostly in the hands of the academics themselves, this pattern of internationalisation mostly benefited established partners. The links many academics in Brazil had forged with European partners in the past assured the presence of Europeans in the majority of these online initiatives in Brazil.

In the same way, research and, in particular, the research effort targeting different aspects of the pandemic in Brazil benefited from these established ties. Many of the new networks and research collaborations launched during the pandemic where European partners played a central role were organised around connections that had already been in place before COVID.

China and the EU

China and EU relations have changed rapidly since 2019, due not only to the COVID-19 pandemic but also to geopolitical changes. According to the European Commission’s EU-China: A Strategic Outlook released in 2019, China has shifted from primarily a comprehensive strategic partner of the EU to a systematic rival.

Because of the increasing tensions between China and the United States, China has attached greater importance to its cooperation with European countries. Instead of developing a general cooperation strategy with the EU as it did previously, China’s current efforts aim to develop bilateral cooperation with individual EU member states. The future of China-EU relations also depends on China’s position and role in the Russia-Ukraine war.

As a direct impact of COVID-19, China has closed its borders since the beginning of the pandemic in order to implement its zero-tolerance strategy to combat COVID-19.

The recent surge in infections in the country makes for even more uncertainty about when the border will re-open. Such a situation has undoubtedly limited China’s participation in international events and activities in the domains of politics and the economy, but the most negative impact is on China’s international cooperation in research and education.

For instance, one third of European researchers employed by Chinese universities have not been able to return to China. All the international students enrolled in Chinese higher education after the pandemic started have had to undertake online learning until now.

In the process, higher education institutions and students have learned new ways of facilitating international education and research through exploiting existing international networks.


The war in Ukraine heralded the end of Russia’s attempts to use cooperation with the EU for soft power and enhancing its global reputation. The series of abundantly funded national internationalisation initiatives in the 2010s under the motto ‘competitiveness enhancement’ now seems to look like a false flag for implementation of budgets without a visible link to results.

The announced goals of Russian internationalisation initiatives, such as five universities in the top 100 of any world university ranking by 2020, had not been achieved before the pandemic.

At a university level, internationalisation has in fact reproduced the Soviet scheme, where chosen individuals, including foreign academics, have been allowed to work in the ‘special academic zone with specific autonomy rules’ in privileged conditions both at home and abroad, while the majority of domestic academics have faced a high number of contact hours (over 800 hours per academic year) and exhausting administrative work.

The pandemic added new barriers when it came to internationalisation due to vaccine rivalry between the EU and Russia. Neither side recognised the vaccines produced by the other, which largely limited physical mobility, but the door was left open to the EU for those few Russians who could afford to use their pre-COVID visas and cooperation projects to take part in expensive ‘vaccine tourism’.

Efforts at full online learning and teaching were rarely successful in Russia, but universities continued to provide lectures by international academics. Russian universities were unexpectedly granted new responsibilities to offer a mix of online and offline learning. As a rule, a variety of online platforms have been used to replace the educational process in accordance with the traditionally high number of contact hours.

But the war has stopped all internationalisation activities in Russia at the national and institutional level, both online and offline. The EU has suspended any kind of institutional cooperation with Russia. The enrolment of international students in Russian universities and their ability to take up residence had already been constrained by the pandemic and vaccine rivalry. Now the situation has deteriorated as a result of the war.

The major difficulties faced by international students in Ukraine has obviously influenced the willingness of their compatriots to study in Russia.

The same is true of the prospective enrolees from post-Soviet countries and it is definitely impossible for those from Ukraine.

Russian academics and students who stay in Russia are cut off from any internationalisation activity abroad. The EU has isolated them physically due to visa and vaccine restrictions; it has stopped flights and closed bank transfers; and online cooperation is suspended with international universities.

Russian authorities have prevented international communication by announcing a “self-detoxication of society” and all protests are subject to repression.

Lessons learned

The changing dynamics of IoHE caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are likely to be increasingly intertwined with factors influencing international political and economic cooperation.

The presence of international students and academics has placed pressure on national economies and, in particular, on public health. This has raised questions about the limits and legitimacy of degree and credit mobility.

However, due to the pandemic, one significant change in the political dimension of internationalisation is the growing attention being paid to national safety and security. Such a situation might arguably become a trigger for neo-nationalism, which entails a contradictory logic to internationalisation.

Yet the pandemic also brings new opportunities. For instance, the division between internationalisation at home and internationalisation abroad has been largely blurred while the role of internationalisation of the curriculum has increased.

There is also growing awareness of the links between IoHE and society through various international collaborations set up to address COVID-19. Furthermore, it has not been possible to reduce IoHE to mobility and exchanges alone. These terms themselves need to be redefined in a post-pandemic society.

Hence, we need to reconsider the whole concept of internationalisation in general and IoHE in particular. Any new understanding of IoHE should pay more attention to the capacity of IoHE to contribute to the political and economic aspects of international cooperation.

It has been argued that the Ukraine war has put an end to globalisation and there is no doubt that IoHE will suffer. However, while higher education institutions need to rethink internationalisation, they must also respect each country’s national context and shoulder more responsibility when it comes to restoring international collaboration.

The 2021 Common Statement in Support of International Education and Mobility, published by nine Global North countries on 25 October 2021, represents a Western-centric view of IoHE, regardless of its affirmation of IoHE for society.

However, IoHE does not exist in a vacuum: each particular country independently determines how and to what extent it should integrate an international dimension into its policies in accordance with its national drivers, limits and opportunities for international political and economic cooperation.

As signalled by the book Building Higher Education Cooperation with the EU, it must be emphasised that IoHE can be sustainable only if it is mutually beneficial to all participating countries and institutions.

Yuzhuo Cai is senior lecturer and adjunct professor at the Higher Education Group, faculty of management and business, Tampere University, Finland. E-mail: Heather Eggins is fellow commoner at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge and visiting professor at Staffordshire University, United Kingdom. E-mail Svetlana Shenderova is a researcher of the EDUneighbours project affiliated with Tampere University, Finland. E-mail: Elizabeth Balbachevsky is associate professor at the department of political science and the director of the Center for Public Policy Research at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA), University of São Paulo, Brazil. E-mail: