Covid19 has created a unique situation across the globe that has never been paralleled in the higher education system in the world. In fact, up until 2020, the world higher education system had really become truly international with various opportunities across the world with many scholarships, Erasmus Programs, global student mobility programs as well as cultural mobility programs. Moreover, with the presence of online education programs as well as with the presence of various global university conglomerates, it had become easy for a student at any point in the globe to reach higher education opportunities.
Unfortunately, all of this changed when the Covid19 pandemic came about at the beginning of 2020 and imposed an extraordinary amount of restrictions on our lives which includes social distancing. Moreover, even though Covid19 seems to be similar to flu, it is far more contagious as per CDC and WHO; and more importantly, for some age groups and for people with chronic diseases, it is far more deadly as it incapacitates your respiratory system.
When the first wave of the pandemic went through the world, education came to a halt in order to reduce the effect of the pandemic on society. All across the world, almost all of the offline education in the universities were suspended indefinitely and university students were requested to leave their campus. Naturally, for the domestic students, they were able to go back to their parents’ homes and stay there for the duration of the Covid19 pandemic. Offline education in the universities was transformed into an online education where students would study from home and attend online courses on LMS platforms such as Blackboard and watch online lessons through Webex or Zoom. Still many universities across the world are not open for offline courses as summer vacation sets in throughout the northern hemisphere.
However, for international students, the situation was far more severe as tens of thousands of international students across the world got stranded in the foreign countries that they were studying in. They could not enter the campuses and use the campus facilities and those students who were staying in private homes were asked to leave their homes. Even some private hostels closed across the world as a response to the pandemic and international students didn’t have the option to stay on campus or even be able to have a place to stay. Moreover, international flights were suspended in many countries since February and the students could not even buy airline tickets to take them back home, so that they could weather the pandemic in financial and medical safety of their own homes back in their own countries.
Of course, to be fair, it must be reported that many international offices of some universities across the world, worked in an extraordinary manner to help their international students to get the support that they needed to overcome problems such as a place to stay or to get medical help in the country that they were stranded in. Unfortunately, these universities with such support for international students were few and many universities across the world did not fare well according to student testimonials that were received. Many students were displaced and had no place to stay and some students didn’t even have money left as their families back home may have lost jobs or incomes and thus could not help their sons and daughters.
However, as an educator of 25 years, I would like to personally thank those countries, universities, and international offices who have gone beyond the call of duty to truly help their international students.
Luckily, many countries were able to provide special flights to get their students back to their countries although these flights were also not sufficient to take all the students back home globally. Of course, now many flights are slowly opening and hopefully, all students who may have been stranded since the beginning of 2021 can slowly return to their home countries and get the relief that they need.
Naturally, there has been also a financial aspect to the Covid19 pandemic and many people across the world have lost their jobs, companies, incomes, and their financial stability. Some families have lost fathers and mothers and siblings and sons and daughters due to the medical outcomes of Covid19. So, life, unfortunately, does not go on for many people across the world and the education sector is also not an exception.
Before the Covid19 pandemic, full-time international students had been the major source of income for many global universities and it was a win-win situation for students as well as the university. Unfortunately, as stated before not all of these universities fared well and took care of their international students as much as they should, and many international students may have suffered as a result.
There are many organizations in the world that are responsible for the coordination of international education as well as international students. These include organizations such as NAFSA, EAIE, IAU, ACU, ISEP and many more. Moreover, there are also large university conglomerates such as Laureate International, GUS (Global University Systems), BAU Network and Pearson and few others. However, the majority of the discussions in these organizations seem to be focusing on how to enable international students to enroll again to help turn the financial wheels for member universities. While enrollment of new students is very important for the financial continuity of the member universities and educational organizations, there is also the question of how to adapt to these changing times. Moreover, the questions of maintaining diversity and equal opportunity also comes to the forefront.
Many international students are worried as to whether online education would be of the same quality as offline education and if it is worth the money that they will have to pay (as many international universities are charging the same fees for online education). I believe now is the time that international offices of the universities should be meeting to discuss not just on how to keep the financial wheels turning by convincing new students to enroll, but they should also ask themselves what extra steps they will take to ensure the necessary support, safety and security as well as academic opportunity would be available to international students. Another issue that international students seem to be asking a lot is whether they will have the same internship and employment opportunities in the post Covid19 era. Of course, there are no easy answers to any of these queries as the solution lies in the collaboration of universities, governments, international education organizations as well as parents and students. Naturally, universities have their financial and regulatory concerns and students also have their future career concerns as well as health and safety concerns in this new era.
The solution can only be found by creating platforms where all stakeholders can get together and discuss the way forward for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders. Perhaps creating an Ombudsman for students at these international organizations for international students’ concerns can be the way forward. Providing free online mental care to international students to help alleviate their fears may be another solution that the international offices of universities should keep handy. Every international student should have access to an academic mentor constantly and this access should be 24 hours in emergencies. Of course, last but not least, there should be a clear protocol in place in what needs to be done in emergencies for international students including epidemics, life-threatening events (such as earthquakes, hurricanes etc.) as well as any undefined emergency that affects the student in mass. (These protocols do exist in many universities, but it was evident that they were woefully inadequate)
These times will also pass as human civilization is resilient and better times will certainly come again. However, the way international students are handled will set the tone for what international education and global educational solidarity is all about. However, I do personally thank hundreds of universities across the world who have gone beyond their duty to help international students and I call upon organizations such as NAFSA, EAIE, IAU, ACU, ISEP and many universities, university networks such as Laureates, GUS and BAU, as well as other agencies and organizations (such as Campus France) to really create platforms where international students’ concerns can be truly addressed for the mutual benefit of all parties.