COVID‐19 Pandemic and Higher Education: International Mobility and Students’ Social Protection

Authors: Başak Bilecen (University of Groningen)

Cite as: Bilecen, B. (2020), Commentary: COVID‐19 Pandemic and Higher Education: International Mobility and Students’ Social Protection. International Migration, 58: 263-266. doi:10.1111/imig.12749

Paper link:

In this commentary article appeared on International Migration, I was invited to write about the main projected effects COVID-19 have on international student mobility and higher education. This article is mainly divided into two main sections. First section raises concerns about the future of higher education and societal impacts of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, while the second section is devoted mainly the issues revolving around international student mobility and their social protection.

For higher education, COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have major impacts on funding and quality in education that has broader repercussions. In that regard, in the first part of this commentary I raise couple of pressing issues.

First, mainly in the Anglo-Saxon tradition higher education institutions are mainly privatized. Over the years, many of these institutions have been relying on international students’ tuition fees for their operations. Any decrease in international student numbers would pose a great challenge for such private institutions.

Second, academia has other inherent problems related to funding which creates adjunct positions on temporary contracts mainly for teaching positions rather than fully employing tenured faculty members. Such positions are crucial for education, yet, very fragile to budget cuts (as it has already started happening due to the pandemic).

Third, online education is the current best option, although not all instructors are well prepared for this almost overnight shift. While education can continue online, both internationalization at home and social aspects of higher education experience are jeopardized. Thus, we will only be able to understand the effects of online education in the long-term.

Fourth, for students, access to internet and technology plays a great role for them to follow their education. In this sense, pandemic further amplifies already existing inequalities. The important remaining question for the future is who will be able to continue to attend higher education and also be able to afford study abroad programs given the upcoming economic recession across the globe. This question has broader ramifications not only on further stratification of higher education, but also stratification of societies at large.

In the second part of this article, I focus on international students’ well-being and social protection to ensure it. International students’ well-being is crucial because they have been experiencing financial hardships, and anxiety about their health, future and the safety of their families, as well as increasing loneliness due to physical distancing measures. Some of them are even exposed to discriminatory behaviors. What is meant here as social protection is the sum of tangible and intangible resources individuals have and can tap into them when needed against social risks, such as social exclusion and discrimination.

In the case of international students, formal social protection schemes include nation-state frameworks, such as healthcare systems or regulations of their legal stay and working conditions, and universities compose semi-formal schemes (e.g., as providers of study and work infrastructures and services, including counseling and student clubs). In addition, students also have personal networks including their family members, friends, colleagues, supervisors, study advisors acting as informal safety nets. International students can rely on all these three layers of social protection that operate simultaneously.

We have to keep in mind that international students are a diverse group and include those with chronic health conditions and disabilities. Regardless of their health status, timely information, hotlines, and support groups in English and the language of the country of education, or possibly in their mother tongues are critical for international students. Safety and healthcare are likely to continue to be the main concerns of international students’ families. Thus, universities and cities need to ensure that there are enough health and safety regulations that are also communicated in a timely manner to international students.