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

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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.

Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on International Higher Education and Student Mobility: Student Perspectives from Mainland China and Hong Kong

Authors: Weiyan Xiong (Lingnan University), Ka Ho Mok (Lingnan University), Guoguo Ke (Lingnan University), and Joyce Oi Wun Cheung (University of Sydney)

Cite as: Xiong, W., Mok, K. H., Ke, G. & Cheung, J. O. W. (2020) Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on International Higher Education and Student Mobility: Student Perspectives from Mainland China and Hong Kong. Centre for Global Higher Education Working Papers, No. 54. Oxford, UK: University of Oxford.

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Summary | The unprecedented health crisis with the outbreak of COVID-19 around the world has dramatically impacted the future of international higher education, especially student mobility. The pandemic raises the travel restriction and campus closures, which lead to the shift of face-to-face teaching to online teaching and learning and the cancellation of physical events and activities. Also, many students canceled or changed their study abroad plans due to safety considerations, travel bans, and visa restrictions.   In this study, we examined the Mainland China and Hong Kong students’ studying abroad expectations after the COVID-19 pandemic, as student mobility is a significant component to explore the adverse impact of COVID-19 on international education.

We applied the survey to investigate Mainland China and Hong Kong students’ attitudes to studying abroad in the COVID-19 pandemic to see if they were still interested in studying abroad after the pandemic and their preferred destinations. Among all 2,739 valid responses, we found that 2,312 (84 percent) university student respondents expressed no interest in studying abroad after the COVID-19 pandemic, while only 427 (16 percent) would consider pursuing further education overseas. Comparing the pre-COVID-19 increasing studying abroad trends with our study findings, we believe that COVID-19 indeed impacts the study abroad preferences of students who are undertaking their degrees in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Moreover, the majority of our respondents are 18 to 25-year-old first degree seekers. Given the research findings, we argue that bachelor’s degree graduates in Mainland and Hong Kong will be more willing to stay to compete for jobs and advanced level degrees, resulting in more fierce competition for job and study vacancies.

For those respondents who will still pursue further degrees abroad, our survey found that Asian regions and countries, especially Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan, are listed in the top five, in addition to the US and the UK. In other words, East Asian countries and regions would recruit more students and facing more opportunities in the increasingly competitive higher education sector for international students. We also believe the reason behind is that East Asian countries with a better situation and pandemic control. Also, the proximity serves as another reason because students may want to stay in neighboring regions, where they can still entertain international exposure and easily retreat to the homeland when necessary.

Furthermore, we argue the current global health crisis would intensify social and economic inequalities across different higher education systems when some countries fail to maintain the scale of international learning because of different paces of economic recovery in the COVID-19 era. For countries that perform well in health crisis management and manage their economic growth, during and right after the COVID-19 pandemic, may rebound and continue to support international learning. For traditional strong countries, like the US and the UK, will still retain their attractiveness due to the reputation of their higher education sectors.

Contribution | The empirical evidence in this study can contribute to the studies on the macro-level issues in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic and international higher education, such as international student recruitment policies, institutional management, and international collaboration. First, this paper presented useful policy insights for higher education institutions across different parts of the world, particularly those heavily relying upon fees generated from international student bodies. Since health and safety become the primary concerns influencing international students’ study plans, we suggest both government and institutions should reflect on the critical issues of the preventive measurement under the context of discrimination and cultural differences, such as the acceptance of “wearing face masks.”

Second, a thriving world city depends on attracting and retaining world talents. As rising destinations for Mainland China and Hong Kong students, this paper draws valuable policy insights for East Asian countries and regions to develop appropriate strategies to attract students. Finally, our research emphasized the importance of collaboration in international higher education during the pandemic. Given the negative impacts on international higher education from the anti-globalization trend and the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers, institutional administrators, and educators should acknowledge that collaborations are in great need, individual institutions and countries cannot deal with this situation singlehandedly.

The Anxiety of Being Asian-American: Hate Crimes and Negative Biases During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Authors: Hannah Tessler (Yale University), Meera Choi (Yale University), and Grace Kao (Yale University)

Cite as: Tessler, H., Choi, M. & Kao, G. (2020) The Anxiety of Being Asian American: Hate Crimes and Negative Biases During the COVID-19 Pandemic. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45, 636–646.

DOI link:

Summary | This article reviews how the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the risks of Asian Americans to hate crimes and experiences of negative bias. We suggest that COVID-19 is linked to China, not only in terms of the origins of the disease, but also in the popular media and news coverage of it. Because Asian Americans have historically been viewed as perpetually foreign no matter how long they have lived in the United States, we posit that it has been relatively easy for people to treat Chinese or Asian Americans as the physical embodiment of foreignness and disease.

First, we assess current patterns of hate crimes and other physical attacks against Asian Americans, as well as vandalism and property damage against Asian American businesses. We use examples from news reports to show how some people associate COVID-19 with Asian bodies and businesses, and some individuals have violently attacked Asian Americans out of their fears about the coronavirus. We also examine the increase in reported incidents of negative bias and microaggressions against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on statistics from the Stop AAPI Hate organization, there were over 1,000 incidents of verbal harassment reported in just four weeks. Some common incidents included being coughed or spat on as well as being the subject of racial slurs. The use of hateful language that targets all Asian Americans (and not just those of Chinese origin) reveals the racialization of Asian Americans as “foreign” and “other.” 

We situate these hate crimes and other negative bias incidents in sociological theory on the racialization of Asian Americans in the United States. At the same time, we explore the historical antecedents that link Asian Americans to infectious diseases, such as the bubonic plague and SARS epidemic. More generally, we draw attention to the association between racialized perceptions of threat and incidents of violence, using examples such as the murder of Vincent Chin and retaliatory attacks after 9/11 to highlight this elevated risk. Based on the trend of hate crimes and bias incidents against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, we find that some Asians are fearful for their safety, and that these incidents reflect the widespread racial sentiments that are still prominent in American society. Finally, we consider the possibility that these experiences will lead to a reinvigoration of a panethnic Asian American identity and social movement

Contribution | This publication offers insight into the historical context behind the trend of hate crimes and negative incidents of bias against Asian Americans and Asians in America during the COVID-19 pandemic. The article also makes a theoretical connection between these recent events and the racialization of Asian bodies in the United States. Our research suggests that some individuals perceive all Asian bodies, without regard to ethnicity or national origin, as foreign, dangerous, and diseased. This is consistent with other research that describes the relationality of race and positionality of Asian Americans in the racial landscape of the United States. The implications of our research are significant beyond COVID-19. We believe that the negative racial bias incidents and hate crimes that are occurring are simply a manifestation of underlying racial sentiments about Asians that will remain salient even after the current COVID-19 crisis is over.

With regards to international student mobility and higher education in the United States, this publication becomes particularly relevant in terms of examining how nonwhite bodies become coded as foreign and regarded with suspicion as potential spreaders of disease, or blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe that COVID-19 may change how international students relate to race on American college campuses, as these students experience how they are racialized in the United States in ways that they may not be familiar with based on their experiences in their home countries. We hypothesize that these effects may persist in the upcoming few academic years, and  the trends of international students studying in the United States may shift as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Finally, we argue that part of this shift may be connected with how international students are treated once they arrive in the United States.

Digital Experiences of International Students: Challenging Assumptions and Rethinking Engagement

Authors: Shanton Chang (University of Melbourne) and Catherine Gomes (RMIT University)

Cite as: Chang, S. and Gomes, C. (2020). Digital Experiences of International Students: Challenging Assumptions and Rethinking Engagement, Abingdon & NY: Routledge.

ISBN: 9780367226350 / 9780367226329

Both of us have been researching the digital experiences of international students separately and collaboratively for close to 15 years. By digital experiences, we include international students’ use of digital resources for study, everyday living, including health and wellbeing, housing, finance, entertainment, and relationships (friends, family, and acquaintances). The ways international students engage with these digital resources include information seeking, communication, encounters, and even avoidance of particular sources they choose not to or are not keen to view. Moreover, over this period we have seen the digital environment change rapidly, with new and improved information and communication technology tools, and platforms that come and go despite supporting millions of users worldwide. From Friendster to Facebook, to Instagram and YouTube, from Ren Ren to Weibo, to WeChat, and Tik Tok, users have become adept at using and then migrating from one digital communication tool and platform to another. Within a few short years, the reliance on digital information and communication tools and platforms has become a ubiquitous part of everyday life where both work and play are conducted over this increasingly complex and layered digital environment.

Seeing the profound effects and affects the digital environment has on people—especially the young who in recent generations are unfamiliar with a world without digital technologies—the education sector has seized upon and harnessed the communicative, collaborative, and teaching power digital technologies offer and are yet to offer. Information about institutions, their courses, their facilities, and their services can all be found online. Higher education institutions are also combining the real with the digital in their teaching and learning pedagogies through blended learning, which sees courses being partially taught online rather than in the classroom, and assignments creatively using digital tools and platforms to communicate, collaborate, and create.

Summary | By looking at the digital experiences of international students, the authors in our book Digital Experiences of International Students: Challenging Assumptions and Rethinking Engagement provide both broad and nuanced understandings of the challenges faced by international students in the complex digital environments they occupy while presenting opportunities for further conceptual and practical development of frameworks and ideas in this evolving space. Through a mix of conceptual, empirical and practice-based discussions around the digital experiences of international students, authors highlight the vibrancy of the international education space.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which gripped the world in the beginning of 2020 impacted the entire education sector in unprecedented ways. Higher education was no exception with institutions and service providers worldwide moving all communication, engagement, teaching and learning to the digital space. Almost immediately, the efficacy of service delivery to domestic and international student communities was called into question. Institutions started to realise that the diverse student body was engaging with the digital environment in different ways.

Students have struggled with a tremendous overload of information covering study to wellbeing. Students have had to cope with most, if not all, services and courses being delivered online. Students were consistently receiving a higher than normal volume of emails and instructions from institutions and service providers. These included digital platforms such as learning management systems (LMS) and social media sites. Inevitably this led to information being missed or ignored.

This complete and urgent migration of all services and information to the digital space in the very short span of one to two months has had an immediate implication for education stakeholders. They have begun to really understand the diversity of student needs in the digital environment. The diversity of experiences students have with the digital environment has now become the central issue in education and service delivery.

Contribution | In light of this phenomenon, this book which has been timely. The authors whose experiences with international students are across different education destinations, reveal the heterogeneity of student digital experiences. This presents some key considerations for institutions and service providers to rethink practices and to adopt diversified approaches to communicating with, and empowering students.

In summary, there are a number of key points made by authors:

  • The experiences, skills and attitudes of students are highly heterogeneous where a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach does not account for the diversity of student needs (Chang et al. [Chap 1]; Seo et al [Chap 3])
  • Developing and curating online learning resources is the norm for many institutions. However, in the same way that institutions recognize the diverse needs of international students in the face-to-face classroom, they should also recognize the diverse needs of international students in the online environment. This means that putting teaching and learning resources online requires careful consideration for how students engage with online platforms, with each other and with faculty members in the digital space (Bedenlier and Marin [Chap 5]; McPhee [Chap 6]; Nonaka and Phan [Chap 7]; and Mohamed [Chap 9])
  • Professional development for international educators in international student digital experiences is essential (Chang et al. [Chap 1]; Bedenlier and Marin [Chap 5]). The foci of this professional development include understanding the way students navigate learning in the digital environment (McPhee [Chapter 6]); how institutions engage with alumni (Binsahl et al. [Chap 4]); and transitioning communities, including a recognition that what constitutes a community can be very different for groups of students (Seo et al. [Chap 3]; Hughes [Chap 8])
  • Beyond the classroom, the digital space is particularly important for international students’ socialisation (Chang et al. [Chap 1]; Wong [Chap 2]; Nonaka [Chap 7]), as well as for their soft skills and identity development, and wellbeing (Wong [Chap 2])
  • Finally, the digital journeys of international students do not stop when they graduate but continue even when they are alumni with their online experiences in the host country affecting the ways in which returnees seek information back home (Binashl et al. [Chap 4])

This book reveals that institutions should not assume that all international students are ‘digital natives’ just because they use popular social media platforms. The assumption that they are a monolithic group of students can be problematic. Moreover, the idea that international students (being ‘digital natives’) should have the ability to navigate their way around various digital environments are challenged over and over again throughout this book. We argue that the online strategies of institutions and service providers need extensive auditing to ensure that there are no further assumptions that 1) all students will effectively find information and resources as long as they are online, 2) that students will easily flock to Universities’ digital environment, given that there are so many other options, or that 3) domestic-international engagement will happen automatically online. The authors show that international students as well as domestic students continue to struggle with the digital environment and tend to revert to environments that they are familiar with. This means the potential for new international connections and interactions will continue to be limited if these digital experiences are not carefully designed, curated and shared with international students.

In conclusion, we propose that institutions and service providers need to consider the cultural and lived experiences that impact on how students from diverse countries interact and engage in the online space.  We hope that this book will show the diversity of experiences international students have and ways forward in building a more inclusive, engaging and internationalized digital environment for all students.

Digital Experiences of International Students : Challenging Assumptions and Rethinking Engagement book cover