10 learnings about international student mobility in and after the pandemic

30 July 2020 | Story Laura Rawden. Photo Je'nine May. Read time 8 min.

International mobility is a vital part of higher education for both undergraduate students and institutions. However, COVID-19 has ground study abroad and exchange to a halt.

“The pandemic is a current constraint, but what can we learn from this that will take us into the long-term?” asked University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng during the third #NewGlobalUni event held on 27 July.

The urgency of the conversation comes not just from the university perspective, where international mobility contributes to finances, but also from the student perspective. “Only about 2% of the world's population can benefit from international student abroad,” she said.

Finding creative, sustainable solutions will pave the way for the future of international undergraduate mobility, and may be shaped by these 10 learnings from the event. 

1: Virtual experiences can boost confidence
Virtual learning is a tool for students who lack the confidence to leave their hometowns. “I like to think of my COIL project as an introduction to physical contact,” said Vinicius Camilo, a student at Technology College (FATEC) in São Paulo, Brazil, who has studied with classmates in the US, China and South Africa as part of the SUNY Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) programme.

“If I were to travel to South Africa now, I would feel more comfortable because the language barrier has been broken and I have already met people from different cultures,” he said.

2: Virtual is an affordable global experience
For many students, studying abroad is a dream. But Andrew Gordon, founder of Diversity Abroad, said that virtual learning provides access to students who previously had no way of taking up global education opportunities without scholarships.

“These experiences are much more affordable, and the rapid development of technology means there may be something even better on offer in five or 10 years’ time,” he said.


“Funding goes further in a virtual world than a physical one.”

3: Funding is available for virtual programmes
Well-designed online programmes can attract donors. According to Ben Nelson, founder of the Minerva Project, their Global Citizen Year is supported by investment from the Shawn Mendes Foundation.

The programme, which provides gap years for students between high school and college, is currently running a virtual gap semester. “Funding goes further in a virtual world than a physical one,” he said.

4: Mutual exchange should be emphasised – both online and offline
Mutual exchange of knowledge and culture is essential for international mobility programmes running online and offline. “The study abroad experience is often crafted through the lens of what that student will gain, with little emphasis on how local students and communities might benefit,” say Gordon.


“Dominating voices that speak up and take space can do so physically and virtually.”

Mutual exchange should be supported within the study group as well, said Mokgadi Marishane, a master’s student in psychology at UCT. “Dominating voices that speak up and take space can do so physically and virtually,” she said.

5. Technology can prepare students for the globalised world
Technology can be leveraged to make cross-country comparisons, which prepare students for a globalised world, said Nelson. For example, a data-mediated learning environment can blend objectives from different disciplines and contexts.

“If you create an online environment that’s deeply immersive you can establish connections, especially if the curriculum provides universal cognitive tools with cross-cultural and cross-contextual examples that students can apply,” he said.

6. Travel builds empathy in ways virtual can’t (yet)
Physical travel not only builds networks and career opportunities, but also fosters interpersonal growth – an important component of academia. “Travel puts us in environments where we have to develop empathy,” said Gordon.

According to him, this is an especially good experience for students from privileged or majority backgrounds who travel out of their comfort zones.

Online networks have the potential to fill that gap, said Athenkosi Nzala, a master’s student in online education at UCT, but only if effectively managed. “One needs high-level management of virtual groups with one-to-one training so that students feel more connected and socially knitted.” 

7. Immersive experiences are important
Virtual is not “a panacea for equitable access to global education”, said Gordon, as some of the benefits of physical travel are lost. “There’s a very real immersive aspect to travel that helps to connect us to people and cultures that we miss in a virtual space,” he said.

That’s not to say physical guarantees an immersive experience. “When I worked in South East Asia, I had friends who studied abroad but mixed only with students from their own country, which made the global exposure meaningless,” said Nelson. “Students must choose to immerse themselves in another culture.”


“Virtual is not a panacea for equitable access to global education.”

8.  Mobility programmes should support south-south collaboration
Ideologically, the global north is always looking at the global south, said Marishane. “It is seldom about a facilitated exchange to let all voices be heard equally,” she said.

To improve south-south collaboration, Camilo suggested international mobility programmes are structured to develop countries in the southern hemisphere in the process. “The more projects there are, the more accessible they will become and the bigger they will grow,” he said.

9. Virtual can complement (but not replace) the offline experience
While virtual experiences cannot replace the benefits of travel, they can supplement or complement them, said Marishane – for example, students seeking shorter programmes or who need to maintain a physical connection to home.

Gordon said that this would be true if programmes were developed to intentionally connect students to other people and cultures. “The virtual experience cannot replace the physical, but it is a tool to help increase students’ desire to engage globally,” he said.

10: Blended experiences may be the future
While virtual experiences may have benefits for inclusion, overcoming cultural dominance and connecting students across cultures and disciplines, those who can afford to travel will continue to do so.

“The future is one where blended learning will be the norm – and perhaps we should be looking at this for an international experience, too,” said Phakeng.

This is especially important when considering the future of international mobility for postgraduate students and their research – which is the focus of the next #NewGlobalUni event happening on Monday 24 August.

Register for that live digital conversation here.


Unleashing the new global university: next up

Postgraduate researchers: can we rethink the international experience?
24 September 2020 / 17:30–18:30 (CAT/SAST)

The fourth event will look at how COVID-19 has ended international travel for postgraduates, creating an opportunity to stop and think: can we make the postgraduate international experience more equitable by going virtual? In this challenging conversation, we explore what will be lost and gained if postgraduates gain an international experience from their desks.


The other events in the series:

  • Monday 7 September | How does changing the medium change the way of doing things?

Follow the #newglobaluni and join the conversation on Twitter.

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