Of all the possible 2020 scenarios, the one that actually occurred beat anyone's wildest ideas. With the global pandemic and the ensuing limitations, the international education system has seen some very dramatic changes over the past year. Some of the common practices that international offices at universities had been responsible for (business trips, exhibitions, direct recruiting) lost their former relevance. Still, for any skeptics wondering if international education is dead yet, the firm answer is "no".
True, physical mobility that used to play an important role in classic international exchanges was hit hard; however, a crisis is never all struggle — it is also a challenge and an incentive to start thinking out of the box. International education quickly seized the opportunities for transformation offered by the crisis to work out new activities and formats of cooperation.
The restrictions on physical travel have pushed universities to try other formats for internationalization. They had been out there all along, but had never attracted much attention or resources. Nowadays, however, virtual mobility has become part of the toolbox for almost all universities, and many students and teachers are involved in it.
The widespread practice of virtual mobility expands the boundaries of international education and opens up new horizons for students. Regular mobility has not been available to many students anyway due to the high travel costs, the need to live abroad for extended periods of time, and psychological barriers. Virtual mobility, on the other hand, enables almost anyone to benefit from a valuable experience in international learning and informal socializing with significantly lower financial and time investments.
In the long run, virtual mobility can pave the way for expansion of international student project activities, the exchange of teaching experience between universities, stronger scientific cooperation, and much more.
Services for students
Last spring, supporting students was a top priority for international offices and other university services. Universities were tasked with urgently putting together the necessary services to meet those students' vital needs. Looking at the global experience in the industry, the scope of these services is truly impressive now ranging from grocery baskets delivery and assistance in buying tickets to support in employment, handling accommodation problems and, of course, psychological support.
At RANEPA, international cooperation has always been a priority, and in this difficult time, the Academy management team made it a policy for all services of the Academy to focus on foreign students in the first place.
This included helping students who found themselves abroad when the pandemic began, as well as foreign students who could not leave Russia and return home.
The professional community's transformation
The universal transition to online learning has entailed two interesting developments.
First, the international professional community has become more united and more accessible. Previously, to listen to a prominent expert and talk to them on the sidelines, one had to plan a trip to a conference in advance, and pay for a flight and a hotel room. The trip would take at least two days, not counting the preparation time. Now all international experts are literally a few clicks away. One can meet with many of them at webinars several times a month just to discuss the latest news. As a result, communication has become much more intense.
Our department has set up and held a series of online meetings, at which Vladimir Mau, Rector of RANEPA had discussions with representatives and experts from the International Association of Universities (IAU), the European Association for International Education (EAIE) and the Boston College Center for International Higher Education (CIHE). True, we all miss the atmosphere of a large event, the feel of a coffee cup in your hands, talking on the sidelines, and yet, we have to admit that online meetings have contributed to a significant consolidation of the professional community and strengthened informal ties.
Second, the flow of information has grown incredibly, leading to a surge in the complexity of routine efforts to keep track of major events and news in the professional field. Last May, we launched the @eduviewrus channel on Telegram targeting the professional community at Russian universities. We carefully track and tell our readers about the main events and trends in international education. This in fact enables interested readers to follow the development of many processes in real time.
Keeping abreast of major trends and major changes is necessary for both tactical and strategic planning in a rapidly changing environment. How will international student flows change? What decisions by the authorities will lead to an increase in the popularity of higher education in their countries, and which, on the contrary, will alienate foreign students? What criteria will students and their families use to choose a country for getting a degree? How will university foreign affairs professionals' job change? Answering these questions is only possible by being aware of global events.
Our work at the Department for International Development and the Telegram channel is aimed at helping our colleagues as well as at contributing to the development of the Russian expert community. This year's experience has clearly demonstrated how a complex system of international education is capable of transforming in accordance with the demands of the time and entering a qualitatively new stage of development; however, it is absolutely necessary to stay informed to make right and timely decisions.