By Matt Clausen
The COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic to higher education internationalization. Much like unemployment, economic, and other statistics this year, stakeholders in internationalization will be left wondering how to measure their gains as outbound student mobility plunges, and full-time international student numbers decline in epic proportions.
Faced with this stark reality, are we to accept defeat and wait for another year? Or, should we take this moment to reconsider what we truly mean by internationalization of higher education? What is the point of internationalization and should we have been limiting ourselves to those narrow metrics all along? As institutions seek to form, deepen, or pivot international partnerships at this chaotic moment, it will be valuable for them to return not only to the traditional metrics of successful international programs and partnerships, such as student travel across borders, but also to the reasons their institutions, communities, states, and countries decided to prioritize international higher education programs in the first place.
“How do we define internationalization moving forward? This is a critical question that a lot of educational institutions are asking themselves right now,” notes Mirka Martel, head of Research, Evaluation and Learning at the Institute for International Education (IIE), who has been studying the effects of COVID-19 on international educational exchange through a series of surveys.
For many institutions and the organizations that support them, including the Texas International Education Consortium (TIEC), the crisis has accelerated a reevaluation already underway to more completely measure the impact of international educational experiences.
“What are the core takeaways we want for our students from an international experience? Maybe that’s an understanding of how to problem-solve for issues that don’t respect national borders, cultural competency that will serve them later on in the workplace, or the confidence and flexibility that come from students testing themselves outside of their comfort zones,” explained Robin Lerner, president and CEO of TIEC. “As we design virtual programs, it’s those outcomes of international experience that we need to use as not just our measures of success but our roadmap.”
The preference for face-to-face experiences and travel-based immersive educational programs is taken for granted in the field. May 2020 survey data from IDP Connect indicate that 69 percent of accepted international students still planned to continue with their plans to travel and study abroad in the United States. If not possible, a significant group of those students preferred to defer rather than study remotely, with more than two-thirds indicating that online study “lacked international exposure” and nearly half expressing concerns about standards.
Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for International Affairs at Lehigh University, and the immediate past president of the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) poses the key question the field is grappling with: “What does international education look like when it is not defined by mobility?”
“It is forcing a reconsideration about what is the purpose and what is the aim of what we do in the field,” said Matherly. “If your sole measure is body count, you are putting a priority on the travel experience.”
When we look at expanding internationalization metrics, we must weigh unfair assumptions that persist about the alternatives to traditional travel-based programs. Many still view any temporary or permanent alternative to traveling for international study as an inferior substitute to ‘the real thing.’ This reasoning is faulty on many grounds. First, online and other non-presential programs shouldn’t be considered substitutes for or replications of travel-based experiences. Second, many travel-based programs lack rigor and relevance. Finally, travel-based programs are often inaccessible to economically or otherwise disadvantaged students.
Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year (GCY), built an organization that supports a new generation of leaders who embrace the interconnectedness of the world. GCY typically provides 100-200 U.S. students annually with an immersive gap year leadership experience involving more than a half year abroad after high school. This year, GCY is focused on a non-travel alternative called the Global Citizen Academy, designed for 2020 high school graduates “who don’t want to sit this year out.” Falik strongly believes that face-to-face global engagement remains critical to preparing the global leaders we need, despite the current pandemic: “We have to come out of this to travel again. Shared global experiences and perspectives will allow us to be more resilient to the next global challenges we will be facing, whether a pandemic or climate change.” However, she notes, in terms of higher education, this year will involve a “massive reset” about how we think about the transition to adulthood.
“There are so many questions about the cost and relevance of the traditional way we do higher education,” reflects Falik. “Students will be fiercely practical.”
The risk, in the eyes of Falik and many others, is that educational experiences such as those promoting global engagement, empathy, and ethics, will be reduced to the cheapest and most scalable virtual version. Despite these challenges, student interest in global engagement is likely to remain strong.
“I think students will remain interested or become more interested in things global. I don’t see that changing at all. We still see a lot of our students talking about study abroad and virtual opportunities. We are still seeing strong interest among international students,” notes Matherly. Lehigh University’s Iacocca Institute normally brings 75 emerging leaders from abroad to their campus each summer for the Iacocca Global Village program. This year, after COVID-19 related cancellation of on-campus summer programming, more than half of the participants remain committed to participating virtually through an alternative program.
“The advantage of virtual exchange is equity, but I don’t think it is as impactful in terms of a personal learning and formative experience, as there is no way to do cultural immersion in a virtual exchange,” says Ukiah Busch, director of public private partnerships at Partners of the Americas (POA). Busch oversees the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund, which formed as part of President Obama’s signature educational initiative in the Western Hemisphere and aims to increase student mobility in the Western Hemisphere by building more dynamic higher education partnerships.
Virtual exchange done well, however, “is more intensive per student than something that is widely accessible for 1,000 students” reflects Busch. “This intensive experience won’t blow open accessibility like a MOOC would, but it is more accessible than a face-to-face exchange.” Still, for the initiative he spearheads, Busch feels that this is an interim period. “We don’t feel the need to completely overhaul how we do what we do, and how we measure success.”
For a leader of a gap year initiative like Falik of GCY, initiatives and movements that were at the fringes in the past will move toward the center. “We need a pathway to purpose and something that is inclusive of young people from all backgrounds,” said Falik. Ensuring accessibility is central to the search for this pathway, a search that may accelerate as a result of the crisis and current national and global dialogues about equity.
As November 2020 nears, the higher education community will once again focus on student mobility statistics. However, a shift will have already been well underway in the search for additional pathways to provide the value that has traditionally been promised as part of educational exchange and internationally focused experiences.
Cheryl Matherly believes that we will not have been successful if the conversation focuses on what we do if a “real experience” isn’t affordable or possible. If the new programs and pathways that are developed or deepened are always viewed as a poor second to travel, then we will have done a disservice. She puts the charge on the higher education community.
“It is incumbent on us to make the case,” said Matherly. “What is ultimately the value of the experience? At the heart of what you are hearing is that returning to the real purpose, the reasons for these experiences.”
In the fog of crisis and the chaos of change, the myriad ways of measuring the indicators of impactful international educational engagement are not yet clear or fully identified. Still, they most certainly will include far more than plane tickets and border-crossings.