Will COVID-19 pandemic kill off internationalization of universities?

October 22, 2020

Katarzyna Kacperczyk headshot  Malgorzata ChromyBy Katarzyna Kacperczyk and MaƂgorzata Chromy

As my suffering mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation – either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. - Martin Luther King Jr.

The global COVID-19 pandemic and its implications are by far the greatest challenge impending over mankind today. Its insidious impact on almost all aspects of our lives has forced us all of a sudden to redesign our lifestyle, work, and interpersonal relations.

Higher education sector, including the international academic cooperation has been hit hardly as well. Coronavirus has completely disrupted the way in which universities have been traditionally operating. For the first time in years, universities had to cope with such a multidimensional and indeterminate threat.

At the outbreak of the pandemic, most of the countries decided to close their borders, and ultimately to also close schools and universities. Since then, many of them did not return to face-to-face classes, and they still operate in the online mode. In case of universities, the suspension of "physical" teaching and the need to switch to an online mode has been an important test for higher education institutions and their ability to adjust quickly to the new COVID reality.

At the same time, due to the pandemic and pandemic-related measures, international cooperation of universities has been confronted with a highly demanding situation. Following years of the flourishing international academic cooperation supported by the globalization processes, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has bewildered most international activities.

The spread of pandemic and closure of borders has negatively affected the international mobility of students and staff. International research collaboration has experienced serious constraints as well. Direct contacts and meetings have been entirely abandoned. International conferences such as NAFSA, EAIE or APAIE, which usually have been primary formats of meetings of partner universities, have been cancelled or converted to online mode. This new, unprecedented situation required rapid reactions to manage activities related to internationalization in a short term. We had to rethink the way we maintain contacts, interact and cooperate. And given that the current pandemic is far from a short disruption, there emerges a clear need to redefine internationalization strategies and operational plans.

Immediate emergency response
Back in mid-February of 2020, when the epidemic did not yet seem to have such a wide range, over 200 students from all over the world came to SGH Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) to study within different exchange programs. Those who came from Asian countries were asked to undergo a "self-quarantine." In this respect, SGH has created highly favorable conditions for these students, providing them with accommodation outside our dorms. With the beginning of lockdown in Poland and the suspension of face-to-face education, some students decided to return to their countries, while others remained in Warsaw. Most of them continued classes remotely.

Similarly, at the outbreak of the pandemic, over 200 students went for a semester abroad: 148 under the Erasmus+ program and 60 under the bilateral overseas exchange. With the spread of COVID-19 some students decided to return to Poland and pursue online classes at their host universities. Most of them, however, decided to stay abroad and continue their studies remotely.
All the incoming and outgoing students received a continuous and comprehensive support from the International Center. Our 24-hours service was open during the first phase of the pandemic to address various concerns of students who were caught by the pandemic in the Spring term of 2019/2020. Our primary goal was not to leave any student alone or without support.

Back then, our most important goal was to cope with the chaos and the uncontrolled spread of misinformation. Since then, we have implemented structures to support crisis management and crisis communication. People tend to act irrational during the times of crisis. The lack of knowledge increases fear and generates panic. For that reason, we have developed and implemented several principles upon which our communication with students and staff has been based.

First was building trust. Students and staff were provided with credible, clearly formulated and regularly sent/published information. This information was derived from official communiques supported by public health experts and authorities. We tried to eliminate the confusion and mixed information.

Second was internal coordination and coherence of communication. A clear division of roles was introduced, with the Chancellor playing the coordinating role across our school. In this regard, the International Center was responsible for communication with international students and staff, providing comprehensive, coordinated support. Posters and infographics explaining the safety measures were widely distributed both by e-mail, social media and the SGH website. Online psychological support was secured when needed.

Third was the flexibility applied to all our actions, be it didactic process or logistic and administrative part of international students’ life in Warsaw. Flexibility allowed us to react effectively, and to adjust to a constantly changing situation.

Fourth, we had to be extremely empathetic and project a broad understanding of the specific situation to international students, who far from home needed special attention and support.

Redesigning institutional cooperation: coping with challenges and embracing opportunities
In the short perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic-related measures have negatively affected student mobility programs as well as the recruitment of international degree students. With time, we had to adjust instruments and mechanisms of international cooperation to the new reality. Different flexible approaches were adopted for different countries and regions.

Our primary purpose was to maintain active contact with key international partners to redesign future cooperation. Hence, we have introduced a regular practice of online meetings, online participation in the conferences, online webinars and other innovative forms of interactions. New communication technologies, including Zoom and MS Teams helped us adjust smoothly. SGH also applied for external grants, including those from the EU funds to help with transition of traditional international cooperation to an online and hybrid one.

Although face-to-face interactions are difficult to replace with a close equivalent, the upside is clear: the current situation can stimulate a better, more creative use of modern, digital technologies and solutions, thus making our work more effective. The need to quickly adapt to remote work, a more flexible approach to procedures, digitization of some processes and limiting the flow of paper were forced by the current situation much faster than originally planned. As a result, we have started the process of complete digitization of the mobility organization process, including:

  • replacing paperwork with digital work,
  • reducing the administrative burden for students and employees,
  • creating free public infrastructure (i.e., with the support of the EU Erasmus program, we implemented a necessary digital infrastructure that aims to facilitate digital and free for end-users administrative workflow),
  • improving technical solutions for student mobility.

Additional elements to be introduced include digital mobility management tools and mixed (hybrid) mobility tools, all of which will additionally enhance the environmentally friendly practices across all activities related to international cooperation. We are planning to engage our alumni and former exchange program participants (i.e. students and staff) in promotional activities in different countries and regions. Creating a network of “local ambassadors” would not only facilitate collaboration with international partners, but also build the position of our university in the global market for higher education.

The situation caused by COVID-19 is also an opportunity to adapt to the new reality faster, through the introduction of electronic document circulation and simplification of procedures leading to paper waste reduction. These efforts will also help reduce the carbon footprint. Finally, they will help shorten the implementation time regarding the process that organizes student exchange programs.

Equally important is the goal to obtain funds for the implementation of international projects. Without such funds, the new routines outlined above would be much more difficult to implement. Over the past 15 years, we secured almost EUR 13 million for the implementation of Erasmus mobility projects (with program and partner countries). In addition, other mobility projects were implemented, including the POWER (international mobilities of students with special needs), the EEA Grants, and various international research projects.

Our continuous dialogue and the ability to share our best practices with international partners during the last months show the strength of our partnerships, in general. It is our goal to keep strengthening this already-intense cooperation and to promote an even more productive knowledge exchange. In times of global connectiveness and global challenges, we need to work together and make our international partnerships stronger.

Despite limitations and restrictions caused by COVID-19 pandemics, we need to work closer together to build a better future for global education, modern research, and fruitful projects to keep pace with the increasingly changing world of the 21st century.

In short, we need more international cooperation, not less.