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ACA Think Pieces: The world after COVID-19


Three powerful images – one hopeful, the second malevolent, the third tragic – suggest that the way we have thought about, and practised, the internationalisation of higher education for more than   30 years may have to change.

The first, and hopeful, image is of Greta Thunberg solemnly lecturing the world’s leaders, or skimming across the Atlantic in a high-tech, but spartan, sailing boat. This 17-year-old Swede with her fiercely puritanical opposition to global warming and the destruction of the natural environment has captured the enthusiasm of millions round the globe. She has changed the world’s  political, if not yet its actual, weather.

The second, and malevolent, image is of desperate refugees (nearly always labelled ‘economic migrants’ to stigmatise them), squalid camps reminiscent of the agony of post-war Europe, frontiers reinforced with walls and wire, xenophobic nationalism disguised as anti-cosmopolitan and anti-elite ‘populism’. Trump, Brexit, Orban, Erdogan – these are the prophets of our 21st-century rejection of the liberal and humanistic values of the Enlightenment.

The third, and tragic, image is of crowded hospital intensive care units and doctors and nurses in full visors, masks and cover-all gowns, of empty streets, offices and factories and of death lists more reminiscent of medieval plagues. The global Covid-19 pandemic now threatens to produce an economic recession unmatched since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and levels of social anxiety unknown in modern times.

Contrast these images with the practice of internationalisation in higher education – massive student flows, still predominantly from east and south Asia to Europe and America (and Australasia), international research collaborations and conferences frequented by globally mobile scientists and scholars, universities competing for world-class recognition and advantage.

Of course, there are those who argue that everything will get back to ‘normal’ later this year or perhaps in 2021. The pandemic may be contained – but climate change or right-wing ‘populism’? Universities, in their globalised form, face fundamental challenges on not one but  all these fronts.  As a result, they will need to make equally fundamental adjustments.

Obviously, international flows – of students and researchers – will be curbed. To cope a step-change will be needed in the shift from face-to-face encounters, whether teaching students or delivering keynotes at international conferences, to online activities. This shift from physical to virtual forms    of internationalisation so far has been written about far more than it has been practised. Now it will have to happen – and happen quickly.

Next, there has been a – too close – association between internationalisation and marketisation in higher education. The recruitment of international students and participation in global research networks have often been seen through the lens of income generation, and freedom from the scrutiny of the State. If internationalisation is curbed, or forced to take other (and better?) forms,  the entrepreneurial university will look very different.

Third, a key driver of the internationalisation ‘game’, student flows from Asia to the ‘West’, was almost played out anyway. The days of its core element, the recruitment of Chinese students, were already coming to a close. But this rebalancing of internationalisation will be accelerated by a more self-confident China, claiming (not implausibly) to have demonstrated its superiority in its response to the pandemic, and generally a more jaded view of the supposed assets and values of the ‘West’.

Fourth, the excessive importance attached to internationalisation in our definition of ‘excellence’, expressed in the proliferating rankings of ‘best’ universities, will be diminished. As international students, and opportunities, dry up (even temporarily), universities will need to discover new forms of validation by better meeting the needs of their local communities, especially the deprived and excluded (which, of course, will help to counter-attack the fake populists).

Finally, the politics of climate change will favour ‘near’ internationalisation over ‘distant’ internationalisation. Catching the train from Brussels to Berlin, or Paris to Rome, will appear far preferable to another long-haul intercontinental flight. The imagined geography of the world is changing. Is it too fanciful to imagine that physical forms of internationalisation will become more confined to, in that sinister post-Soviet phrase, ‘the near abroad’, leaving more virtual forms dominant in the ‘distant abroad’? If it is, this may be an opportunity to reinvigorate and re-imagine the European project. 


Sir Peter Scott is Professor of Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education in London and Commissioner for Fair Access in Scotland, and a former President of ACA.

The World after COVID-19 is a series of ‘think pieces’ which ACA will be publishing every Tuesday since early May. The pieces are authored by well-known experts in the field of international higher education. The basic question posed to them all is if and how the post-COVID-19 world will differ from the one we have until recently been used to.