International education is adapting to global uncertainty

In an ambitious closing plenary of the 24th annual International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) conference entitled ‘Around the globe in 60 minutes’, leaders from eight member associations of the Network of International Education Associations (NIEA) reflected on how the current global, regional and national geopolitical and economic contexts were impacting on higher education and the internationalisation of higher education.

Common challenges and opportunities emerged from across the globe, with some national and regional specificities, during the discussion held on 26 August.

While the principle of higher education as a public good is continuously fought for in many countries in the Global South, the actual capacity and funding to deliver an accessible and sustainable higher education system remain extremely challenging, especially where poverty and inequality are rising as is the case in Argentina at present.

This is also the case in contexts of decreasing state budgets and unresponsive political contexts in some country cases. Brazil was mentioned here as a case in point.

In contexts where access to and inclusion in higher education is a significant local challenge, the participation in internationalisation of higher education can be perceived as a luxury.

Globally, post-pandemic visa processing backlogs, meanwhile, are preventing outgoing and incoming academics and students from proceeding with their international plans, affecting access and participation.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has afforded us an opportunity to rethink the dominant model of internationalisation, focused on cross-border mobility, and to imagine a more inclusive model incorporating internationalisation of the curriculum, internationalisation at home, internationalisation of society and internationalisation for sustainable development.

New alliances

There is also increased awareness of the importance of collaboration and creating new alliances in international higher education. Our engagement, as the NIEA panel, in the IEASA conference is one such example. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a global framework for international partnerships and more collaborative work on sustainability.

The transition to online education happened out of necessity, catalysed by the pandemic, and came with implementation and access issues in many countries in the Global South. However, we learned that institutional thinking and psychological barriers can sometimes hold us back from embracing innovation, of which we are capable.

There remains an opportunity to do further research on what worked and what didn’t work during the period of emergency online education.

Going forward, technology can increase access to higher education and internationalisation and push the boundaries of how we currently do things. We need to learn how to optimally tap into innovation in digital delivery.

Colleagues in Canada are planning on exploring the intersection of artificial intelligence with many aspects of higher education internationalisation, at their upcoming conference in October.

Further challenges to the internationalisation of higher education include the impact of the climate emergency.

The Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE) is striving for a carbon-neutral and climate-literate international education sector by 2030. Students are challenging traditional education mobility programmes that increase carbon emissions and are calling for change.

Our colleague from Europe explained that the European Union response to the pandemic outlines the main challenges and the social and economic impact on Europe.

Within the 2021 Recovery and Resilience Facility, two of the six pillars identified are ‘digital’ and ‘green transition’ and will receive over 50% of €724 billion (US$731 billion), available in a mix of loans and grants, to the EU states. The challenge for universities is to access a portion of this funding for research and development.

Existing and emerging concerns

Another key concern for international higher education is supporting the educational needs of refugees displaced by war and social violence. There is currently a particular focus on the Ukrainian war in Europe and many higher education institutions in Europe are willing to partner with Ukrainian academics and assist student refugees.

The rise of far-right nationalism in some parts of the world is contributing to countries becoming more insular, pulling back on international cooperation and showing increased hostility towards foreign nationals, all of which is antithetical to the global cooperation needed to solve urgent global problems.

The attack of the far right on the Capitol in Washington in the US on 6 January 2021 led to an intense debate in the United States about the threat to constitutional democracy, and social justice. Higher education is actively engaged with this debate on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

Colleagues from the US were concerned that discrimination, racism and the disregard for black and brown lives pose risks for international students, especially African students. Media coverage of the significant increase in mass shootings over short time spans is impacting on the attractiveness of the US as a traditionally safe country for incoming students.

There are also concerns about black and brown students who already face discrimination and microaggressions at home being placed in study abroad situations that potentially replicate this hostility.

In a recent international student survey in Canada, 65% of students felt that discrimination had increased since the global pandemic.

The challenge of racism globally is explicitly acknowledged in the NIEA statement released in 2020, calling on governments and universities to support internationalisation.

The state of national policy frameworks

National policy frameworks are viewed as important for the internationalisation of higher education. For example, while there are over 2,000 higher education institutions in Brazil, very few host international students.

The absence of a policy framework in internationalisation in Brazil is seen as problematic. The focus of the national internationalisation policy in the case of Argentina is on regional integration, a concept which evokes many cultural and political sensitivities in the region.

South Africa’s implementation of the policy framework on internationalisation of higher education released in 2020 was paused by COVID. US colleagues welcomed the attention to updating the policy on internationalisation by their Department of Education for the first time in many years.

The relationships between international students and local communities are another important aspect of internationalisation. For example, international students in the US are generally well integrated in college life on campus, but there is more to be done in integrating students into local communities.

International students need to be cognisant of the history of the country contexts they enter, especially where there are processes such as the relatively recent Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada.

While the number of international students coming to Canada has increased since 2021, there is a new housing crisis following the pandemic. In some instances, universities are even requesting international students to defer their studies, as there is no capacity to accommodate them in the smaller towns.

COVID disrupted the staffing of international offices, as many staff were laid off when international mobility came to a standstill. While opportunities to engage internationally are there and growing, who is going to manage them?

Furthermore, international education professionals are an ageing population, which is of concern. Where are the next generation of professionals coming from? We need to grow the pipeline of leaders.

Finally, while the pandemic stretched the resilience of and inspired creativity in international education professionals, the sector now needs to pay attention to nurturing the professional in a changing international education environment, as elucidated above, and who, furthermore, are expected to do more with reduced resources.

Related to this is the importance of the mental health and well-being of all staff and students and the need to further develop and extend wellness programmes in higher education.

Hope for the future

In response to the question “What gives the leadership of internationalisation of higher education associations hope for the future?”, the NIEA colleagues on the panel responded:

• Global collaboration in challenging times, as global problems require global solutions;

• Inclusive education, open scientific collaboration and democratisation;

• The SDGs offer a strategic plan for the planet and a great basis for international collaboration;

• Technology that will increase access and diversify the models of collaborative international education;

• The international education professionals who build communities, foster friendships and build trust to find solutions for global problems;

• The rise of student voices on the climate crisis and many other issues inspires hope for intergenerational collaboration to solve problems;

• Increased mental health awareness, as we cope with the new normal of ongoing uncertainty, and the hope that there will be ongoing support for each other and our students; and

• The NIEA community and the platform for a global conversation on the internationalisation of higher education, while physically based all over the world, is inspiring.

“While the pandemic separated and isolated us, technology allowed us to share and deliberate on collective solutions together and prepare a policy briefing for the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference.

Internationalisation of higher education is essential for the future and our associations are essential to developing internationalisation. We need to continue to build the community, nurture the connections and provide mutual support.

The panellists look forward to meeting face to face at the European Association for International Education conference to be held in Barcelona from 13-16 September.

A recording of the session mentioned in this commentary will be available on the IEASA website.

The panel consisted of the following leaders from the following organisations:

• Mirian Carballo, representative of Red de Cooperación Internacional de las Universidades Nacionales (RedCIUN) del Consejo Interuniversitario Nacional (CIN)

• Marcio Barbosa, president of the Brazilian Association for International Education (FAUBAI)

• Jewell Winn, president of the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA)

• Esther Brimmer, CEO of NAFSA: Association of international Educators

• Larissa Bezo, President and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE)

• Michelle Stewart, president of the European Association for International Education (EAIE)

• Giorgio Marinoni, manager of higher education and internationalisation at the International Association of Universities (IAU)

• Orla Quinlan from Rhodes University is current executive and former president of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA).

Orla Quinlan is current executive and former president of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA).