Photo of cherub statue wearing a medical face mask.

Global Connection in Times of Reduced Mobility

International and cultural perspectives are essential to a quality business education. How can educators provide these experiences amid restricted travel?

The post-COVID-19 environment has created enormous global turbulence for traditional study abroad opportunities and experiences. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Education at a Glance 2019 reveal that nearly 5.3 million students are enrolled in university-level education outside their home country. Australia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Austria have, in descending order, the highest percentage of international students. Asian students represent 53 percent of foreign students enrolled worldwide, with the largest numbers of students from China, India, and Korea.

More than 340,000 American students participated in a study abroad program during the 2017–18 academic year, according to data from the Institute of International Education. The European Union’s famed Erasmus+ program supported 325,000 students in study abroad opportunities among participating program countries, according to its 2018 annual report.

In Europe, even the venerable European Association for International Education—the European center for expertise, networking, and resources in the internationalization of higher education, which normally attracts upwards of 7,000 attendees to its early autumn conference—has pivoted to offering a range of “timely replacements” to support its members in Europe and around the world.

Indeed, Edwin van Rest, founder and CEO of Eindhoven-based Studyportals, praised the higher education sector’s response to the crisis so far. Reporting on extensive research conducted by the firm, he said, “In many areas I've seen more progress in two months (during the COVID-19 lockdown) than we ever deemed possible in 10 years in the world of universities.” He goes on to discuss students’ perceptions of the crisis, highlighting that 41 percent of students say they will now change their study plans due to the outbreak. The Studyportals research also concludes that the least attractive option to students exploring study abroad opportunities was simply to cancel their internationalization pursuits.

Despite current mobility restrictions, more than 90 percent of prospective international students who had intended to study at an EU institution are still pursuing those plans, according to findings from a QS survey of 14,416 prospective international students. In response, Universities UK, the collective voice of 137 universities in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, says, “Many universities are developing contingency plans in case international students are unable to attend classes on campus this autumn.”

This means that universities may still accept international students on the basis that courses will be delivered online until it is possible for students to attend in person. Northeastern University is now offering virtual study abroad programs. These programs promise students a uniquely immersive experience as well as a chance to explore global ideas and engage with cross-cultural perspectives.

Likewise, Yu-Feng Lee, professor and senior international business adviser at New Mexico State University, has said that the International Business program is providing virtual study abroad opportunities for graduating students. The same is being done at the Kogod School at American University, which rapidly transitioned to an online format.

Finally, many universities see the post-pandemic period as a pivotal opportunity to recruit new study abroad students. To reverse a single-year revenue loss projected at some 200 million USD, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) is pushing for 21 million USD in government funding to empower Ireland's international student market. Following the pandemic, the IUA wishes to launch an ad campaign to advantageously position Ireland as a post-pandemic study abroad destination.

Given the persistence and itinerant nature of today’s Generation Z students, it is likely that in the post-pandemic world, globalization and study abroad will return with a renewed vigor. The short-term challenges to our schools are enormous. But those that have innovated and persevered with creative solutions, including virtual international options for both study and internships, are better positioned to relaunch face-to-face global enrollment and experiences in the future.


Tim MesconTimothy Mescon is executive vice president and chief officer of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at AACSB International. Follow him on Twitter @timmescon.