The state of higher education internationalisation after COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education systems worldwide, leading the World Bank, UNESCO and UNICEF to call it the “worst education crisis on record”.

Teaching, research and service to society – the core missions of higher education – were significantly impacted and required quick responses from all stakeholders. Higher education internationalisation has been particularly hard hit.

The global connectivity that internationalisation promotes was suddenly at odds with measures to curb the spread of the virus. Thus, the challenges brought to internationalisation by the global pandemic have been both broad and profound.

Higher education systems and institutions across the world were impacted by and responded differently to these challenges, yet common trends exist. In a recent Higher Education Quarterly Special Issue on Internationalisation of Higher Education in Pandemic Time in a Global and Comparative Perspective, we bring together research on general and specific challenges to internationalisation from regions across the world.

The nine case studies included in the issue bring together experiences from Asia, the Pacific, Europe and North and South America. Taken together, the articles highlight an array of common challenges and responses from institutional and national actors to shape a ‘new normal’.

What are the main findings derived from this global and comparative study?

Academic (im)mobility

Academic mobility of students and staff, the most prevalent aspect of internationalisation, faced a rapid decline and some countries were more affected than others. Despite differences in degree, in all regions of the world the pandemic has brought a turn to immobility.

In the short term, national policies to address international students’ difficulties did not seem to have a big effect. Comparing the starkly different national level policies of Canada and the United States in the wake of COVID-19, one article finds largely similar slightly declining enrolment patterns between the two countries in 2019-20.

However, more recent results hint at the fact that unsupportive federal policies in the US at the onset of the pandemic might have had negative repercussions in the mid-term.

For example, the US hosted around 15% fewer international students in 2020-21 compared to the previous year, the steepest yearly decline in international students since 1948 when the Institute of International Education started collecting data. The drop in international scholars in the US was even more pronounced, a 30% year-on-year decline in total numbers in the academic year 2020-21.

Widespread restrictions in international travel disrupted the physical movement of students and academics across borders.

One of the most extreme examples was Australia, where the severe and extended border closures imposed by the government locked out international students, impeding them from starting or continuing their studies. The repercussions were dramatic and could be felt system-wide due to the high dependency on international student fees of Australian universities.

The restrictions also had a significant effect on the well-being of students and staff who were abroad during the pandemic.

For instance, international faculty in Japan found themselves stuck in deserted campuses and cities and many became lonely, anxious and concerned not only for themselves, but also for family members. Negative impacts were felt by international faculty also regarding their teaching, research and other academic activities.

A survey of Asian students clearly showed that COVID-19 significantly affected their intention to study abroad. In addition, students showed a preference for studying in countries with an effective pandemic response, such as Canada, Japan, Germany or France.

Evidence from Russia suggests that the resilience of the higher education system is paramount because it provides stability in uncertain times and the resources for developing new internationalisation practices adequate to changing realities.

Overall, the impacts of the pandemic are more evident and considerable in countries that have traditionally attracted many inbound international students, such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the US. The decrease in numbers may be due to a mix of individual changes in preferences and the effect of national policies on the choice of study destination.

Rethinking internationalisation strategies

While disruptions to physical international academic mobility flows were significant, the impact of the pandemic was more profound. Higher education institutions faced major financial concerns, delays in research and teaching activities, a downturn in overall recruitment and overworked staff.

Institutions used the opportunity (or were forced) to rethink the heavy focus on mobility and to reposition internationalisation from an exceptional activity confined to the international office, to a transversal activity integrated into the institutional mission. A case study of a university in Chile provides a compelling example of how this works in practice.

Higher education cooperation is growing in importance. In Europe the pandemic seems to have had immediate repercussions on internationalisation strategy execution and increased the gap between strategy and implementation, while network participation provided a tool to address encountered challenges and to support strategic adaptations.

In the UK, universities and colleges used their partners’ overseas campuses and online provision to support international students in their home country.

The scaling-up of virtual mobility has enabled many students to enjoy the benefits of international education without its high costs. Evidence from China suggests that students appreciate the flexibility and economic advantages of virtual mobility and that such programmes are here to stay. A slump in mobility from China, the largest sending country of international students, can have important global repercussions for internationalisation.

Old vs new normal

The effects of the pandemic are still unfolding. Expecting to completely return to the ‘old normal’ from before the pandemic is a natural inclination, but an unlikely eventuality.

The challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced higher education systems and institutions to try new approaches to internationalisation that go beyond mobility. This is a welcome development.

However, taking stock of global challenges in a comparative perspective also revealed that the pandemic has heightened inequalities between individuals, institutions and systems. Policy-makers and institutional leaders must be wary of perpetuating inequality in access to internationalisation opportunities.

Daniela Craciun is a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands (e-mail: Futao Huang is a professor in the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University in Japan (e-mail: Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow in the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in United States (e-mail: