Post-Workshop Reflections

Student Mobility and Higher Education Institutions

1. Test and Experimentation

The pandemic has been framed as a test or experimentation for higher education and society at large. These terms are useful for reminding us to view the pandemic as a period of suspended time and space, noting that this suspension is experienced differently across different students and institutions. Some experience it as waiting while others find opportunities to reinvent, some experience prolonged anxiety and feel ‘stuck’ while others take detours more readily.

Rebecca Ye spoke about the pandemic being a test to both student mobility flows and the institutions that sustain these flows; Francis Collins also underline the notion of experimentation, particularly on border control and management, and implications for reconfiguration of international student subjectivities.

Such testing and experimentation, of course, requires institutions, faculty, and students to exercise flexibility. While this push for flexibility ties in well with the discourse of resilience that has been pedalled by governments well before the pandemic, students as young people are now positioned in (and evaluated on) a novel model of flexible citizenship that is exhorting them to accept greater risks and uncertainties as a ‘new normal’.

Returning to the idea of testing and attempts to make things work, an important question to ask is who is bearing the cost of this culture of experimentation?

2. Emotions and Governance of Mobility

The pandemic has brought about immense stress and uncertainty for various actors and communities. But emotions are not only felt; they can also be evoked, provoked, and mobilised.

Rebecca Ye spoke about elite universities evoking ‘nostalgia’ and asserting the physical campus as a ‘special place’; Ravinder Sidhu tackles this head-on looking at Australian universities mobilising positive emotions to reboot international student mobility. These observations extend scholarly analysis about how emotions are governed to show how emotions become the tools for governance, especially during the pandemic and such turbulent times.

As Miguel Antonio Lim’s presentation on the significance of geopolitics, and in particular Sino-US tensions, reminds us, emotions are not only mobilised by institutions but also by states as they draw upon notions of belonging nationalism, and related affects of fear, anger etc. to enact borders and steer mobility pathways at the national, regional and global scale.

3. Infrastructural Glitches and Re-valuation

Since the pandemic’s impacts on higher education and student mobility were first noted, the discussion has largely focused on how to simulate repairs of glitches in the infrastructures of higher education and international student mobility.

Conversations that emerge across the workshop point to the need for not returning to the old normal, but to collectively carve out new conditions that may recalibrate power imbalances, discriminatory policies, unequal distribution of resources, and more. What this demand, then, are new infrastructural components. At a later part of the workshop, Francis raised a point about the salience of the state – more than anything else – in times of crisis like this, especially when issues at stake involve border governance and management.

This relates to the question of value, or what Rebecca Ye calls the ordering of worth and in what Yasmin Ortiga raised about the reorganisation of value by lower tier for-profit universities. How can international students be coded through a value regime that is well beyond the economic logic. Are there opportunities for re-valuation of higher educational practices and mobility regimes, above and beyond the logic of neoliberal competition?

4. Care Duty and Ethics

Extending the question of value, a theme raised in Suzanne Beech’s paper on student recruitment and the performance of care by agents throws into light the urgent question of how to care for international students?

Brenda’s question on what should the new social contract between universities and students be in post-pandemic times drew out some suggestions: digital forms of caregiving, the role of professional carers in university settings, and the burden of care becomes transferred to teachers. This ties into Yuan Yanyue’s presentation on the pedagogies panel where she spoke about the anxiety machine produced by the pandemic, revealing how wider failures in infrastructures of care for international students – and students at large – can filter into the lives of those who form professional and everyday relationships with students.

Yet, many more questions remain about care in higher education in times of crisis: what about student carers, and what provisions and inclusionary practices are there for this group of students? How do we begin to value care in university settings, and the value of the work that people are doing as a result of their care duties?

5. Regional Pivot

Several presentations spread across the panel, including Xiong Weiyan‘s sharing on the survey results of international student flows between mainland China and Hong Kong as well as Ralph Buiser‘s presentation on student recruitment in the UK, point to the greater interest among East Asian students to search for study opportunities within the region.

At the same time, different speakers underline the drive to adopt digital technologies as a solution to many pandemic-driven limitations placed on international mobility. The digital assets developed to address international student mobility also play a part in pivoting internationalisation strategies and student mobility towards local and regional geographies.

Could the post-pandemic scenario be a case of returning to encouraging international destinations? Or would it build upon the path dependencies set by current investment in digital infrastructures, and lead to more a pronounced emphasis on regional and local spatialisation of student mobilities?


1. Digitalisation and diversity

Nancy Gleason and Yuan Yanyue’s presentations raised the important idea of students as a diverse body, and that many intersectionalities exist among students. This is a point that Cora Xu mentions too when she points out how international students are often framed as a homogenous group in policy discourse.

Speakers on the pedagogies panel are of the view that bringing technologies into higher education learning helps expands the resources for diverse student learning needs and learning styles. Chin Wee Shiong‘s presentation on NUS adopting virtual study abroad to continue to provide students with opportunities for intercultural engagement in situ, for instance, is one strategy in place.

This poses the question of how to ensure optimal engagement with diverse students & learning styles in digitalised environments? What new practices should be retained post-pandemic? How to internationalise and realise intercultural competency in absence of overseas travel?

2. Digitalisation and educational relationality

The pedagogies panel points to the use of digital technologies and shift towards online learning has the potential to bring much positive impact on higher education teaching and learning, by changing what some educational scholars call the educational relationality – that is the relationship that frames the instructor and the learner position and identity.

Digitalisation of learning infrastructures, as the speakers believe, presents a potential to reshape power relation between students and teaching faculty, by giving students more spaces to input into pedagogies and curriculum.

There is also an opportunity to recalibrate faculty and students’ relationship with teaching and learning. By making use of the blended learning approach which taps into digital learning platforms, self-directed learning can be fostered among students. When students learn to take on a more proactive stance towards learning, and see the value and meaningfulness of doing so, this frees up more time and space for faculty to focus on their part in ‘educating’ rather than ‘teaching’.

3. Digitalisation and mobility

Sasiwimol Klayklueng raised the possibility of thinking about e-learning as a form of Internationalisation at home, which helps us take the discussion of pedagogies to the wider question of internationalisation and its assumptions about mobility.

As Menusha De Silva suggests, perhaps it is not always about internationalisation – in the sense of going abroad for overseas experience and culture. The assumption has been that a liberation of learning requires movement across international borders to search for ‘other’ cultures while non-movement means the domestication of learning. But the pandemic is now forcing us to re-evaluate this assumption and to rebalance the relationship between mobility and immobility as well as localisation and internationalisation. Lindsay Allen also reveals how Yale-NUS College has shifted resources otherwise for international student travel to deepening local and regional ties between students and communities.

This also brings back the question of Francis Collins’ point about digitalisation of learning and what it means to be an ‘overseas student’, and this has implications for – at a broad level – how dominant imaginings about the value of local vs overseas students might need to be rethought. To this end, Yasmin and Rebecca also hinted at a hierarchy of worth that maps onto the degree of mobility that a student has. In other words, how can we re-value immobility – and its varied experiences – in the global education field?

In the longer term, how do we cope with the collection and sharing of personal data across institutions and markets, and ensure ethical management of related issues such as privacy and confidentiality, platformisation of labour, and digital security threats?

Q&A Recap

The panel on “Pedagogies” raised these questions: how to ensure optimal engagement with diverse students & learning styles in digitalised environments? What new practices should be retained post-pandemic? How to internationalise and realise intercultural competency in absence of overseas travel?

The panel on “Students & Institutions” raised these questions: How do elite & lower tier for-profit institutions differ in responses to the pandemic? Will there be a ‘secondary circuit’ of international student mobility flow beyond the pandemic as new regional markets open up? How should universities recuperate international student mobilities, through institutional, state, and market mechanisms?

The panel on “Notes From the UK” raised these questions: what should the new social contract between universities and students be in the post-pandemic time? What new role of markets/agents and their relationships with public universities would emerge? How to perform care for international students? Would new metrics emerge for post-pandemic international higher education?

The workshop has raised numerous critical questions and reflections, for both researchers and practitioners, and serves as one of the many ongoing platforms set up around the world to examine the pandemic’s impacts on higher education and student mobility. It is hoped that the conversation will continue beyond the workshop and carry over into many other gatherings, where we can use these topics to reflect on wider humanity and what it means, and how to keep changing the world that we desire to live in!

Yi’En Cheng, Asia Research Institute, NUS

The International Student Mobilities and Post-Pandemic Futures virtual workshop was organised by Yi’En Cheng and Brenda Yeoh (Asia Research Institute, NUS) and Peidong Yang (National Institute of Education, NTU). The workshop contributes to the research interests of the Asian Migration Cluster where ongoing projects are being developed around geopolitical shifts and their impact on new knowledge spaces, young people’s mobilities, and Asian regionalism.

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