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International Higher Education in Unprecedented Times

“International education has been such an enriching benefit of our interdependent world as we knew it – exploring cultural diversity where core values are challenged”

International education has developed rapidly over the past decade, as advances in global travel and technology have made the world more accessible, both physically and digitally.

However, we now live in unprecedented and uncertain times with the Covid-19 pandemic enveloping civilisations throughout the world, indiscriminate of nationality, colour, race, religion and location. Not only have we been forced to adapt our behaviours rapidly against a real threat to humankind, but we have developed an isolationist mind-set, adopting social distancing to protect ourselves and those closest to us.

As we grapple with the concept of non-contact, this challenging worldwide situation has opened our eyes to the inherent social nature of humankind, finding ways to grow our skills and knowledge of advanced technology to enhance our connectivity remotely.

International education has been such an enriching benefit of our interdependent world as we knew it – exploring cultural diversity where core values are challenged. It is the catalyst to growing knowledge, competences and attributes in the development of a multi-faceted worldview and greater understanding of alternative perspectives. Does today’s pandemic put an abrupt halt to this globalisation and transnational awareness or is this an opportunity to discover more innovative ways of connecting globally and building our cross-cultural competencies?

Higher education institutes around the world are asking precisely this question and searching for real-time solutions as imposed lockdowns are gradually eased and a new normal is slowly unveiled. We are all looking at what the “new normal” will actually look like and how we can shape international delivery of education to fit our reconstituted society. Indeed, as some nations unlock their social distancing, there are already variances in what “new” rules will be applied. At the time of writing, Spain had just introduced limited outdoor exercise time, which has been the accepted norm in the UK since the lockdown and Germany is allowing spas and hairdressers to open – never before did I appreciate the real benefit of being bald!

Clearly, we all see the world through different lenses and have different and often conflicting priorities and core values. However, it is the understanding of this diversity, the multiple perspectives and cultural differences that forms the very foundation of international education. Not only is it about developing a global mind-set, but developing critical skills such as agile mindfulness, decision-making, situational evaluation and relationship-building that an international educational experience can provide with its immersion in cultural, attitudinal and behavioural diversity. So, can this really be achieved in this new VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world we face? Can an online education substitute this engagement with diversity or will international education be mothballed and confined to storage until we re-emerge and return to global travel as we knew it?

“The future is fascinating, presenting exciting opportunities to exploit the technologies we have invented and lived with for years”

The future is fascinating, presenting exciting opportunities to exploit the technologies we have invented and lived with for years. In fact, much of our digital connectivity to date has been established around social networking and building personal relationships, which younger generations have embraced. Now is the time for institutions and students to apply that sense of adventure, a key element in international education, and explore different ways of teaching and learning in the discovery of new ways to interact and communicate globally.

Questions should be posed about the ways in which we can establish relationships, without the physical interfaces we are used to. We should be looking at developing remote interactions that are geared towards the cultivation of the skills, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that an immersive international experience achieves. Already Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and other such platforms are enabling our remote visual and aural connectivity – incorporating the diverse cultural nuances and contradictions that are experienced through international education within teaching content would produce adaptability in our learning styles, and would help to achieve grounded educational development.

History shows that there will not be a genuine educational substitute for an immersive international experience, but is there a choice in these unpredictable and uncertain times? The reintroduction of international education as we knew it does not yet have a definitive timeline, and the option of delaying will simply waste the extra time that the pandemic seems to have given us.

There will always be a permanent future for international education. However, in these unusual times we simply need to embrace our global circumstances and adapt our behaviours. Students play a critical role, developing a mind-set to engage with new and unforeseen teaching styles. Adapting to unpredictability and unusual contexts is a key attribute and a basis of international education – one that is much-needed in today’s world.

Institutions need to optimize advanced technologies, become creative and innovative in the methods used to reach learning outcomes, and integrate the cultural and soft-skill learnings from an immersive experience into a short-term solution before we can return to some realistic form of “normality”.


  • Daniel Sheratte

    Mr. Daniel Sheratte is the International Recruitment and Engagement Manager at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). He has twenty-eight years’ experience in international hospitality, leisure and tourism industries; successfully leading teams in continental Europe, Africa and the UK. With a wealth of international cultural experience, having lived and worked in nine countries within four continents; he is truly a global citizen.

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