Mobility: In search of models that work for the many

There seems to be wide agreement on the part of faculty and university administrators around the world about the value of student mobility when it comes to nurturing global citizens, but ensuring that the opportunity for mobility is available to everyone is still a challenge – and, at least when it comes to physical mobility, this challenge includes the very real issue of student visas.

In a discussion on how to ensure international mobility works for “the many, not the few” at the 13th edition of the Reinventing Higher Education conference held in Cape Town, South Africa, earlier this month, Valérie Amiraux, vice-rector for community and international partnerships at the Université de Montréal, Canada, admitted it was more difficult to ‘open’ a French-speaking university up to those who cannot speak French. But it was not impossible.

“An open and international university I think means being open-minded to those not fluent in French, at least during the first years of study ... and it means being morally concerned and ethically aware that not everyone has ability to move,” she said.

Different angles

Co-hosted by the IE University in Spain and the University of Cape Town, the conference (dubbed an ‘un-conference’ by organisers) included strong contingents of international journalists, many of whom were panel moderators, and students who participated actively in discussions and in many cases brought an edge of reality into the discussions.

Launched in 2010 at IE University, the Reinventing Higher Education symposium organised in collaboration with the IE Foundation, brings together university administrators, policy-makers, entrepreneurs and top managers, academics, student representatives and media experts to discuss the status and future of higher education.

President of IE University Santiago Iniguez told University World News the participation of students embodies an emphasis in the conference on seeing issues in higher education from “different angles”.

“The idea of the IE symposium is not just to gather academics. That way, we end up talking of our own problems and from an academic perspective. And nothing happens. Academic institutions, unfortunately, given their governance systems and regulations, etc, are difficult to move and reluctant to change.

“In order to talk openly about change, we bring different stakeholders, including students, employers, journalists and other stakeholders of relevance – social groups, activists. We believe that by providing a very diverse group, we can see issues in higher education from different angles.”

Empathy and understanding

Asked by panel moderator Ciku Kimeria, Quartz Africa editor, to comment on the value of academic mobility, Ignacio de la Vega Garcia, associate provost for academic affairs, faculty and internationalisation at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, told the conference that his own experience of living, studying, teaching and travelling in many countries over the course of his lifetime had revealed to him the power of mobility to nurture empathy, an understanding of different cultures, and basically, to “get into someone else’s shoes”.

He said that at his institution mobility and internationalisation are part of the institution’s value proposition and commitment to human flourishing.

He said while most students are encouraged to spend a semester abroad, 40% did not have access to the programme owing to lack of finances and other restrictions. Even prior to the pandemic, the university was working on addressing this situation through the development of what is known as the ‘Global Classroom’, which uses technology to connect students and faculty to international counterparts and facilitate collaborative online international learning (COIL), he said.

Andrea Prencipe, rector of LUISS University in Italy, said some dimensions of mobility can be addressed virtually, while others cannot. He referred as an example to the case of his son who fell in love with Middle Eastern culture and studies and gave up doing a masters in the Netherlands to move to Jordan where he could learn Arabic and physically immerse himself in the culture.

“Our job today as it relates to international activities is more complicated than it was 10 or 20 years ago and we need to be aware of the new environment and create conditions to co-learn the changes, rather than ‘adapt’ – because adaptation has negative connotations,” he said.

He said in mobility initiatives, it was important to bear in mind where a student comes from. In Europe, the Erasmus project has had a big role in creating a European identity, but people also retain a sense of their own nationality, he said.

This duality holds true across other countries where cultural roots are still cherished regardless of the degree of cosmopolitanism, he suggested.

Speaking of universities, he said: “Our role is to understand the mindset of our students. The ability to learn and unlearn – not your own cultural roots – but to understand that the world is changing fast and is marked by evolutionary and revolutionary dynamics. Students must acquire a mindset to help them navigate in this world. That’s part and parcel of the toolbox.”

Brain drain

When Kimeria suggested that a downside to mobility was brain drain and she had read that there are more Nigerian doctors in Los Angeles than in the whole of Nigeria, Ignacio de la Vega Garcia responded by admitting a decline in Mexico’s economic competitiveness had made it difficult for the country to compete with the United States when it came to salaries for graduates.

“If you graduate and earn US$12,000 but have the opportunity to drive 200 miles north and get US$60,000, brain drain happens and you cannot put a wall [up] to keep people, so the responsibility is on us as citizens to think about how countries can put talent at the centre. Those graduates won’t be back until we are competitive, living conditions have improved and there is wealth, security and health,” he said.

But Sharan Singh, vice-president of strategic partnerships at the Minerva Project in the United States, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago and who said he had lived through three waves of brain drain in the Caribbean, spoke of a world that was fundamentally altered by globalisation.

“But all of those who have left yearn for home and pine to come back. We now live in a digital nomad world … I sit in Trinidad but work remotely and am very productive. The days of people getting on planes for immersion experiences … these are admittedly impactful but also unsustainable.”

Recalling his experience of a course in urban studies at a small private liberal arts school in Los Angeles where he was forced to take public transport downtown to observe the city and its various inhabitants, he said he learnt more that day in the field than he did the whole time he was enrolled.

“It is within the power and it is the responsibility of all faculty to immerse their students in the world around them. This is where the term ‘glocal’ is relevant … On the drive here [to the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika at UCT] I passed a Korean barbeque restaurant, an Italian restaurant … My immersion experience as a student in LA was curated and thoughtful, and this can also be done in Cape Town. To achieve internationalisation can take effort, but we don’t need to get on plane to do it.”

The very real problem of visas

But physical travel is still first prize for most students, particularly those in Africa. Student delegate Merlyn Nkomo – from Zimbabwe and studying at UCT – highlighted the very real difficulty of timeously securing study visas. “What were universities themselves doing to help students?” she asked.

Masters student Elvis Browne, who comes from Liberia and is studying at IE Business School in Spain, said he arrived late for his course owing to delays in visa processing.

Panelists were not short on sympathy, but struggled to offer solutions. De la Vega Garcia admitted visas were “a nightmare” while Amiraux said her institution had dedicated staff to facilitate visa processes. Singh conceded that the geopolitical impact on mobility was impossible to miss and said it was difficult for individual institutions to address as they were also at “the mercy of geopolitics”.

Prencipe said infrastructure was needed to ensure “mobility is built on reciprocity” but said the issue “cannot be sorted out by a single university”. Universities should be “pushing governments to be more flexible when it comes to managing visas and the like”, he said.