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The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international higher education: critical reflections

27th October 2021

Author: Ka Ho Mok, Lingnan University, Hong Kong

The sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic since late 2019 and early 2020 has undoubtedly disrupted international higher education, causing adverse impact on international student mobility.

Well before the current global health crisis, people began to critically debate the value of internationalisation of higher education from international and comparative perspectives, raising concerns of intensified inequality, because not all people have the privilege to enjoy studying abroad. The unprecedented global health crisis resulting from the widespread COVID-19 pandemic has indeed exacerbated incidents of social inequalities in the world.

The literature reviewed in Farnell et al. (2021) suggests that COVID-19 has inevitably brought about new risks and challenges that affect the access, study process and retention of students, particularly those coming from underrepresented, vulnerable, and disadvantaged groups. Even for students who still go on studying abroad, recent studies on student learning experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have identified the following challenges faced by students:

  • Challenges related to studying conditions (i.e., access to a quiet place to study, equipment, reliable internet connection and course study materials, and confidence in using online platforms)
  • Challenges related to funding (i.e., loss of employment/income, difficulty in meeting living costs and issues in receiving scholarships)
  • Challenges related to well-being (i.e., lack of supportive social networks and prominent feelings of frustration, anxiety, and boredom with academic activities) (Farnell, et al., 2021, see also Doolan et al., 2021; Aristovnik et al., 2020; Amoah and Mok, 2020).

The above literature also confirms that those students encountering such challenges would consistently face problems in their access to higher education. National-level surveys, such as those in the UK, reveal that those students experiencing loneliness and dissatisfaction with their learning environment are at risk of dropping out (Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen, 2020). Similarly, in their examination of the well-being of international students across 26 countries/regions, Amoah and Mok reported that most of their respondents felt lonely and anxious when studying abroad. Many of these students also received insufficient support from their host institutions in environments characterised by high risk and uncertainty, potentially prompting them to return to their homes (Amoah and Mok, 2020; Doolan et al., 2020). Against the context of a highly divided world, there is a strong call for addressing the growing concerns of intensified inequalities in access and participation in international education to enhance learning experiences for all.

In addition, the switch to online learning is likely to exacerbate inequalities across countries with different levels of advancement in education technology. With the support of information and communication technology, virtual student mobility is increasingly being used to support communication during the pandemic. For example, a joint statement was signed by 33 universities worldwide to support student mobility during the pandemic, and over 60% of HEIs around the world increased their virtual mobility during the pandemic (UNESCO, 2021). Compared with in-person events and fairs, virtual student mobility can reduce the transportation cost of international travel thus available for students with lower socioeconomic status. Virtual student mobility can also be accessed by students who are not suitable for international travel due to various reasons such as physical disability. However, equity concerns relating to access to such events remain because they still require certain infrastructure support. Barriers to virtual student mobility include:

  • Infrastructure limitations
  • Concerns relating to the quality of the programme and the certificate if any
  • Different administrative measures between home and host institutions
  • Language barriers
  • Access to information

The digital divide between developed and developing countries could influence access to such programs and thus further worsen the educational stratification between rich and poor. Virtual student mobility is also viewed as inferior to physical mobility by some students and employers, calling into question the sustainability of such programmes after the crisis.

Therefore, the problems encountered by less socio-economically fortunate groups in less-developed countries in terms of their access to higher education, let alone enhanced learning through international higher education, are obvious (Aristovnik et al., 2020; Azevedo et al., 2020; Farnell et al., 2020). Those students from less-advantaged social groups would face the same challenges in their higher education access. Those individuals without sufficient financial means and support would not enjoy the experience of studying abroad.

In view of the above circumstances, governments across different parts of the globe must address the issues related to higher education access and implement the appropriate policies/measures for promoting diversity in higher education, especially when regimes are very keen to embrace innovation and technology.

Governments and institutions, together with different stakeholders in the business and the wider society should unite, pulling resources from different sectors to co-producing better learning opportunities for realising the UN Education for All agenda.



Amoah, P. and Mok, K.H. (2020). “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Internationalisation of Higher Education: International Students’ Knowledge, Experiences, and Wellbeing”, Higher Education Policy Institute, June 2020.

Azevedo, J. P., Hasan, A., Goldemberg, D., Iqbal, S. A., & Geven, K. (2020). Simulating the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on schooling and learning outcomes: A set of global estimates. The World Bank.

Aristovnik, A., Kerzic, D., Ravselj, D., Tomazevic, N., Umek, L. (2020). Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Life of Higher Education Students: A Global Perspective. MDPI, Retrieved on 17 August 2021.

Doolan, K., Barada, V., Buric, I., Krolo, K., Tonkovic, Z. (forthcoming) Student Life under the COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown: Europe-wide Insights, European Student Union.

Farnell, T., Skledar Matijevic, A. and Scukanec Schmidt, N. (2021) The Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education: A Review of the Emerging Evidence, NESET Report, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Marinoni, G., Land, H.V., and Jensen, T. (2020)."The Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education around the World. IAU Global Survey Report."

UNESCO. (2021). “About Virtual Student Mobility in Higher Education.”



This article is based upon the Report prepared by the author for UNESCO with a focus on examining the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on higher education.

Thanks to the experts from the UNESCO networks for advising the author when preparing the report and this article.