The CGHE brought together an esteemed panel for its annual conference to discuss the future of international student mobility, where Jenna Mittelmeier gave the stark warning.

Despite the sector being “relatively forgiving” and “easily adaptable” as policies and practices have shifted in the past, Mittelmeier said: “Unless universities take seriously issues like inclusivity, decolonisation and anti-racism in teaching and support structures, then it is my feeling that for many groups of international students, the interest in international study will run dry.”

For Mittelmeier, the future of international student mobility is “a question of ethics” and she highlighted the importance of the duty of care that institutions put forward, urging them not to see international students as “replaceable drops in an overflowing river”, and instead seeing working progressively with international students as an ethical and moral project which they should be playing an active part in.

The lecturer discussed how the pandemic brought to light significant issues surrounding racism, discrimination and micro-aggressions, particularly towards but not limited to Chinese students or students thought to be Chinese.

During the initial lockdown, Mittelmeier conducted a study of representations of international students on Twitter which she described as “truly the most emotionally exhausting research” she has ever done; she stated that she was “overwhelmed with the volume of racism and stereotyping that existed online”.

Ka Ho Mok, vice president and concurrently chair professor of comparative policy at Lingnan University, discussed a survey carried out by Lingnan research team in June 2021 to assess the motivations for study abroad destinations prior to, during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Unless universities take seriously issues like inclusivity… for many groups of international students, the interest in international study will run dry”

The survey gathered 2036 responses from 799 universities and colleges and found that a university which offers good social security, and where personal safety can be guaranteed, was in the top five reasons for choosing a studying abroad destination during the pandemic.

50% of students agreed that this factor was of importance to them whereas this reason did not appear in the top five list prior to the pandemic.

Ka Ho believes that one of the biggest take-aways from the survey is the importance of institutional support available to international students.

“I think many Chinese and Asian students in the last two years, with the outbreak of Covid-19, saw international media reporting on Asian students being discriminated against because of the different perceptions and the different practices in public hygiene and health, and that’s why during Covid-19 they consider security, social security and personal safety to be very important during their stay of overseas learning,” said Ka Ho.

Rachel Brooks, professor of sociology at the University of Surrey, gave the opinion that for the future of international student mobility, emphasis must be on quality of the experiences in addition to accessibility when facing the challenge of diversification.

Brooks believes that although, in many ways, institutions have made progress towards becoming inclusive, other forms of differentiation have emerged which must be assessed.

During the online webinar, Aline Courtois, senior lecturer, department of education, University of Bath, discussed the “de-academisation” of student mobility programmes.

Drawing on a study conducted in Ireland, she examines how the Erasmus year abroad programme has become shorter, dis-embedded from academic programmes and stratified as the offer expands and diversifies within an unequal system. This includes modules created purely for international students, those which are loosely or not at all matched to their degree, and the exclusion of international students from certain classrooms – a place where social inclusion normally takes place.

“Many of my participants reported that they were not treated like other students. They were not integrated in the same way, they were not expected to perform and in some cases, sadly, they were barred from accessing modules that were reserved to local students even though they may have chosen the destination based on the modules offered there”.

Mitellmeier further condemned the unjust assumptions that international students are intellectually deficit and the argument that they lower academic standards.

“There are really major questions about the extent to which our pedagogies are inter-culturally inclusive” said Mitellmeier.

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