Reflecting on international student mobility in a post-pandemic world



In the second of a series from our International Committee exploring issues around student mobility, Professor Agnes Nairn and Dr Craig Robinson consider how Covid-19 has affected international student mobility.

The United Nations - formed in 1945 in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War - defines itself as “the one place on Earth where all the world’s nations can gather together, discuss common problems, and find shared solutions that benefit all of humanity.”  The world still has quite considerable common problems and will, sadly, continue to do so. Many of these problems are reflected in the challenges we face as business schools and universities emerging from two years of pandemic-related disruption.

We in higher education may not be the UN but we do have a big role to play in gathering together people from different nations and finding shared solutions to these problems. We generate evidence, innovations and ideas. We educate the next generation and they, perhaps more than any other sector of society, need to be able to meet their international counterparts to exchange ideas. And they need to meet in person. Our fundamental focus needs to be on student outcomes. We need to help students develop transferrable skills, intellectual abilities and an appreciation of the complex and changing world they will go into when they graduate. International experiences, meeting and working with people from diverse cultural backgrounds and the mobility that underpins that, are a core part of this education.

Over the past two years we have been able to democratise access to international experiences through, for example, virtual exchange programmes and international online company visits. These experiences are, however, a complement and not a substitute for international student mobility. The student that travels and studies internationally as part of their degree programme has a (sometimes extended) immersive experience in a different culture. At the same time, students who study at home are exposed to a more diverse range of cultures, experiences and ideas than they otherwise would because of the in-class diversity that the international reputation of UK higher education brings. We have all found elements of our work that can be delivered with equivalent outcomes (or better ones) in a digital format. Our experience of the past two years, however, suggests that the outcomes of an international experience for individual students and the wider student community do not fall into that category.

True: one of the big problems we face is climate change and true: international flights emit harmful emissions.  But, we would argue, sharing ideas on combatting the crisis is vital, and necessitates young people visiting each other’s countries.  To help generate novel shared solutions they need to witness how other nations live, understand others’ challenges and cultural approaches.  The webinar, the Cooperative Online International Learning programme, the zoom call and online learning are here to stay. These will undoubtedly reduce the carbon footprint of our universities.

But student mobility must remain a core part of Higher Education’s contribution to the UN mission in 2022 and beyond – or else we risk siloed thinking and a rise in international intolerance.


Professor Agnes Nairn is Pro Vice Chancellor (Global Engagement) at the University of Bristol and Dr Craig Robinson is Reader in Business Education at King's College London.