The changing face of international student mobility




This post is the first in a series by members of the International Committee of Chartered ABS exploring the current debate around sustainability and international travel. We welcome your comments.

The cross-border movement of students is a defining feature of our higher education landscape, with close to 6 million students moving abroad each year for, or in relation to, higher education. The UK alone plays host to over 600,000 internationally mobile students, a good proportion of which are situated in our business schools.

Despite the dramatic and lingering effects of the pandemic, the trend line remains towards increased cross-border movements. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has predicted that the number of students mobile for the purpose of tertiary education will rise to 8 million by 2025. Despite Covid-19 and geo-political uncertainties, people retain a long-term interest in studying abroad, and the long-term prospects for international student mobility (ISM) remain good.

With vast changes to international student mobility following the pandemic, The Chartered ABS’s International Committee has become a valuable forum for knowledge exchange and advocacy on a range of issues relevant to members, many of which have been the subject of “deep dives” in our meeting series for International Deans and Directors. A consistent theme has been the changing face of ISM, a subject which brings together the Committee’s priority themes of access and visas, international student experience, internationalisation risks, and the evolving relationship between internationalisation, technology, and our environment.

While the Covid-19 crisis may contribute to lasting changes in the way students consume and experience international education, talk of a post-mobility era looks exaggerated. What is emerging is a more complex picture in which new forms of virtual mobility are complementing traditional mobility mechanisms such as fee-based study abroad, international summer schools, and student exchange programmes.

Though physical travel is unnecessary for the creation and transmission of knowledge across borders, it retains considerable advantages. Study abroad experiences help students develop valuable skills including problem-solving and autonomous decision-making. Research indicates that extended periods of training or studying abroad help people develop transversal skills such as self-efficacy and a strengthened ability to manage change and disjuncture. Moreover, exposure to foreign cultures helps people develop multicultural skills and potentially linguistic skills too.

According to a study by Vittoria Jacobone and Giuseppe Moro, mobility programs not only increase human capital in individuals, but also their cosmopolitan orientation. It is also the case that students face many disorienting dilemmas once they’re outside of their home country or culture, and this leads to transformational learning through disjuncture. According to several studies, the personal development associated with outward mobility results in higher grades, enhanced degree outcomes, and better career prospects, with personal networks also broadened and internationalised.

The tangible benefits of physical mobility should not however mask the environmental by-product, or the existence of alternative paths to international learning and experience. Physical mobility in international education leads to a carbon footprint that has to be reduced or offset and this is a serious concern. Virtual mobility is emerging as a means by which those unable to move physically across borders, or simply opting out, can enjoy some of the positive effects. It is clear too that virtual and collaborative online learning can provide authentic learning gains at relatively lower cost.

The watchword for all of us must be responsibility. Responsibility in terms of access to opportunity, and responsibility in terms of our promotion and championing of different mobility modalities. What we should be targeting is not a post-mobility world, but a responsible mobile world. In that future, traditional physical mobility should be available to young people at a lower cost and with a clear purpose. It should also co-exist with more developed virtual mobility options, which can make international experiences more accessible at lower cost. That future must also address some of the concerns about international student mobility, including aspects such as environmental harm and matters of personal safety and security.

Advocacy of long-term movements versus short-term movements may be a part of that process, with research indicating the superior learning gains of deeper immersion in foreign cultures and contexts. Advocacy of specific forms of transportation, where possible at least, may also play a positive part, along with off-set schemes or initiatives more typical of other industries characterised by high mobility levels.

The choices are complex. The environmental gains of reducing mobility flows need to be seen against the social and economic opportunity costs.  A less connected world, or a world in which future leaders and managers have less direct experience of other cultures and societies, may prove to be a less harmonious one. Finally, let us address the challenges of war and insecurity on international student mobility. Crises such as that in the Ukraine must never be seen solely in terms of their disturbance or “brake effect” on revenue flows. They are in fact a reminder of the fragility of our freedoms and of the security risks associated with ISM. We have a duty of care as a sector to international students worldwide, and it has been heartening to see the number of excellent institutional initiatives focused on young Ukrainians and other persons displaced or injured by this latest global crisis.


Professor Simon Mercado is Executive Vice President for Business & External Relations at ESCP Business School (Paris/London) and Chair of the Chartered ABS International Committee.