Is virtual exchange a poor relation to study abroad?


The president of the European Association for International Education (EAIE), Michelle Stewart, admits to feeling “uncomfortable” when she hears people suggest that digital virtual exchanges are the way to give poorer students a taste of global higher education.

Speaking at Universities UK International’s Go International conference 2020 on 26 November, Stewart, internationalisation director for humanities and social sciences at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, said pushing virtual exchange for students from less advantaged backgrounds was the wrong way to look at things.

Instead, she believes short-term opportunities to study abroad should be seen as the entry-level to international education. “Sometimes the barriers are not just financial; they just can’t envisage themselves doing that for whatever reason. So we need a suite of opportunities to a whole range of students.”

Speaking during a session on “A Green Future for Mobility” at the Go International event, Stewart said virtual exchange could be seen as a second-best for those seeking an international dimension to their university education.

Is digital participation really inclusive?

Her fears were shared by other experts on the panel, with green higher education champion Ailsa Lamont telling the online conference: “I would extend the question to how do we ensure that digital participation is inclusive. There are probably a lot of people who don’t have a great set-up for virtual internships and that kind of thing.”

Lamont has led international education at three Australian universities and launched Pomegranate Global in 2016 to guide the education sector to act on climate change. She agreed that short-term mobility was the best gateway to longer-term mobility, certainly in Australia.

Professor Eunice Simmons, vice-chancellor at the University of Chester in the United Kingdom and a board member of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), said sometimes the barriers to international education were “perceptual” and argued that there was a need to explore with students when they say: “I can’t do that”.

She told the conference not to under-estimate the value of hosting. “Providing it was high quality, it was an excellent way to increase the confidence of students and make them feel able to go on a visit subsequently.”

Social inclusion project

Wim Gabriels, project and policy officer at the Erasmus Student Network, said they were currently working with Universities UK International (UUKi) on a social inclusion and engagement in mobility (SiEM) project involving partners from across Europe.

The SiEM project is co-funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme and follows UUKi’s own ‘Widening Participation in Outward Student Mobility’ project several years ago, which pointed out that while social inclusion was a seen as a priority for European student mobility, very little research was available on the accessibility of the Erasmus+ programme and what measures could be put in place to improve access and participation.

Gabriels told the UUKi Go International conference that the SiEM project will look at the various barriers preventing students from different backgrounds from taking part in mobility programmes and whether efforts to widen participation were hampered by the duration of student exchanges and environmental, institutional or self-imposed barriers that prevented some students from taking part.

Gabriels said he supported using the hosting of international students as a way to engage local communities and local students in real internationalisation at home and said: “While we have been talking a lot about this, it still needs to be really ingrained in the way it is implemented in everything we do.”

Professor Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University who chaired the session on a green future for mobility at the Go International conference, said more thought was needed on the data being collected, particularly in terms of environmental impact of student and staff mobility.

Staff mobility carbon footprint

Gabriels added that, while much attention was directed towards the carbon footprint of international students studying abroad and big student exchange programmes like Erasmus+, there was also a need to know more about the environmental impact of staff travelling abroad.

Riordan agreed and said it was almost a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic that there was now much more focus on the carbon emissions being generated by international higher education.

Despite having played a key role in efforts to encourage more UK students to study abroad since the government’s UK Strategy for Outward Student Mobility was launched in 2013, when just one UK student was studying abroad for every 15 international students in the UK, Riordan questioned whether global higher education should welcome the return of air travel to normality after the pandemic.

“We’ve not always wanted to confront the issue of the climate emergency and reducing the carbon load in the world head on, but universities have now made great commitments about being carbon neutral by 2030,” said Riordan.

At Cardiff University, he said they were seriously looking at whether inbound and outbound study mobility to China could be done by train instead of plane to minimise carbon emissions.

‘Go Abroad’ replaced by ‘Stay Home’ in 2020

Michelle Stewart, who told the conference she put her name forward to be president of the EAIE to ensure it had a UK leader when the Brexit transition period for Britain leaving the EU ends on 31 December, said 2020 had been particularly challenging for everyone working in the field of internationalisation of higher education.

“We’ve spent most of our time persuading students to go abroad and making it possible to do just that, but this year the message ‘Go Abroad’ has turned into ‘Come Home’ and then ‘Stay Home’!”

She said: “It has been a painful process for us and for our students and we now know we are under pressure to innovate and adapt and our students have been incredibly resilient.”

Decline and recovery of student mobility

Stewart predicted that physical student mobility would gradually recover after the pandemic, but could decline from last year’s estimated figure of more than 5 million to as little as 2.5 million, but she was cheered by the suggestion from Allan Goodman, CEO of the Institute of International Education (IIE), that it could quickly recover and grow to 7.5 million by 2025.

COVID-19 is the 12th pandemic in the IIE’s history, although none has had the same immediate impact on universities throughout the world. According to Goodman, after each pandemic international education exchanges were among the first global activities to recover.

Whatever happens, said Stewart, the rapid move to online learning during 2020 had real potential to reshape student mobility, collaboration and internationalisation of the curriculum and internationalisation at home.

“But we also know digitalisation cannot solve issues of inclusion for disadvantaged groups and those living in rural communities and that the rapid shift to online teaching increases the need for mentoring, guidance and support to alleviate problems of health and well-being and issues linked to isolation.”

The Go International conference included a number of pre-recorded sessions, including one looking at some of the initiatives Newcastle University’s School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences has used for virtual exchanges, such as with TED University in Turkey in 2019 and 2020.

This showed the benefits of using digital technologies for virtual exchanges while teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) before the COVID-19 pandemic restricted physical travel opportunities and during the coronavirus crisis.

Nic Mitchell is a journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities communication network, EUPRIO, and on his website. He provides English-language communication support on a freelance basis for European universities and specialist higher education media.

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