The COVID-19 Pandemic and internationalisation of higher education: International students' knowledge, experiences, and wellbeing

23rd June 2020

Authors: Padmore Adusei Amoah and Ka Ho Mok, Lingnan University, Hong Kong

Internationalisation of education is facing unprecedented challenges when the world is presently confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic. Well before the current global health crisis, growing concerns have been raised about the value and benefits that international education brings to different social groups. Critics against internationalisation of education claim the phenomenon favours only the elites in society and disadvantages groups with low socioeconomic status. In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, this argument is even more critical.

Leading scholars in the field of international higher education believe a broad-based crisis for higher education globally is emerging, and one major consequence is intensive inequality and incertitude in the post-pandemic period. To prepare well for the unpredictable future that lies ahead, there is the need to understand the gaps in current support systems for students involved and the implications for internationalising higher education.   

We conducted a survey to explore the knowledge and experiences of international/non-local higher education students regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on their wellbeing. The survey captured responses from 583 students who responded to the questionnaire from six continents including Africa, Asia, Oceania (Australia), Europe, North America, and South America.

The sources of information for international students were diverse, with the main ones being news media, and social media and social networks. Universities, through mediums such as emails, were also a regular source of information, but certainly not the main channel.

The respondents were generally aware of the nature of COVID-19. However, it was clear that their knowledge on where and how to seek help for COVID-19 related problems in their study countries was comparatively low as many of the students disagreed with the statement on help-seeking avenues. Indeed, an analysis of the students’ knowledge on different aspects of COVID-19 showed a significant difference between each of the other knowledge areas and their specific knowledge on where and how to seek help for COVID-19 if they develop symptoms.

Inevitably, the pandemic has had an impact on the wellbeing of the students. The survey shows that the majority of international students globally felt at risk of COVID-19. The high perception of risk relatively correlated with the extent to which the students felt worried about COVID-19. One major source of worry was their concern for their families, as the majority of them were still abroad and far away from homes after lockdown measures in many places. These worries, and the need to adhere to preventive measures, seemingly led to situations where students felt lonely.

On the academic front, the majority of the students felt that the COVID-19 pandemic had caused a major disruption of their academic activities with a large proportion of students considering the effect from moderate to an extremely large extent.  We also invited the respondents to evaluate their satisfaction with their learning experience amidst the pandemic. The response was somewhat mixed with just under half of the students who took part in the survey responding to this question expressing slight to extreme satisfaction with current teaching and supervision arrangements by their institutions. Nonetheless, the international students were very positive about the future of their studies. Despite their worries about the pandemic, and the loneliness it was causing, the majority of the students (83.8%) were keen to return to their current institutions to continue their studies.

Addressing the major concerns raised by international students, universities must do more to support international students to obtain proper health information and social support systems. Given their immigration status and the somewhat unfamiliarity with the health systems they found themselves in (as hinted by the respondents’ knowledge on help-seeking avenues), it is apparent these students would require more support to protect themselves and mentally deal with this pandemic and future health-related problems.

The fact that the majority of the students rely on social media for COVID-19 information is concerning given the high likelihood of 'infodemic' – inaccurate and sometimes, exaggerated health information – from such sources. Higher education institutions must be prepared to find creative and healthy ways of supporting the social aspects of international students' lives during challenging periods. Surely, international students can not be left to their own devices as the potential for mental health problems arising from limited social engagements is real.

Most important of all, the above conclusions raise a big question of whether higher education institutions are/will be ready to open their campuses with all the support systems required, to welcome international students in the post-pandemic period. Even so, one can also question if it's ethical for universities to take in international students in the short term as most institutions are still unsure about the safest ways to operate?

These questions are particularly critical as the world, in general, is highly divided on the health promotion and preventive measures of COVID-19. Indeed, this health crisis is seriously questioning globalisation as nationalism has become increasingly prominent as a result of the different management approaches.

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