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WEEKEND READING: The Covid-19 pandemic and internationalisation of higher education: International students’ knowledge, experiences and wellbeing

  • 13 June 2020
  • By Padmore Adusei Amoah & Ka Ho Mok

This blog was kindly contributed by Padmore Adusei Amoah, Research Assistant Professor, and Professor Ka Ho Mok, Chair Professor, both of Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

Covid-19 Pandemic and International Education

Internationalisation of education is facing unprecedented challenges when the world is presently confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic. Well before the current global health crisis, growing concerns have been raised about the value and benefits that international education brings to different social groups. Critics against internationalization of education claim the phenomenon favours only the elites in society and disadvantages groups with low socioeconomic status. In view of the Covid-19 pandemic, this argument is even more critical. Leading scholars in the field of international higher education believe a broad-based crisis for higher education globally is emerging, and one major consequence is intensive inequality and incertitude in the post-pandemic period. To prepare well for the unpredictable future that lies ahead, there is the need to understand the gaps in current support systems for students involved and the implications for internationalizing higher education.

The Covid-19 Pandemic and International Students’ Experiences

We conducted a survey to explore the knowledge and experiences of international / non-local higher education students regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact on their wellbeing. The survey was conducted online using the QualtricsXM survey system from 12 April 2020 to 1 May 2020 by researchers from Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Convenience and snowball sampling approaches were employed to recruit participants globally. By international / non-local students, we refer primarily to students who are not citizens or permanent residents of their current country/region of study.

About the Survey

The survey captured responses from 583 students who responded to the questionnaire from six continents including Africa, Asia, Oceania (Australia), Europe, North America and South America. The students studied in 26 countries/regions globally. They studied in all kinds of academic fields broadly relating to social sciences, arts, humanities, and the physical sciences. The average age of the respondents was 26 years, and the majority (53.9%) of them were females. Research postgraduate students (46%) dominated the sample. Most (46%) respondents were not receiving any form of financial assistance (in the form of scholarships). At the time of the survey, the majority (61%) of them were still in their country/region of study.

Major Findings

1. Main sources of information on Covid-19

The sources of information for international students were diverse, with the main ones being new media, and social media and social networks (family and friends). Universities (through mediums such as emails) were also a regular source of information, but certainly not the main channel. Results show that over 70 per cent of international / non-local higher education students said they got Covid-19 information from social media and new media. However, 14 per cent of respondents did not know how to seek help in their study countries / regions if they were to develop Covid-19 symptoms. In addition, nearly half the respondents (47.5%) felt at risk from Covid-19, and approximately 71.7 per cent expressed worry. One major source of concern was for the safety of their families as after lockdown measures in many places most of them were still abroad and far away from home. These anxieties as well as the implementation of preventive measures such as social distancing, meant that approximately 45.2 per cent of students felt lonely.

2. International students’ wellbeing amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Inevitably, the pandemic is having some impact on the wellbeing of the students. The survey shows that the majority (47.5%) of international students globally felt at risk to Covid-19. The high perception of risk relatively correlated with the extent to which the students felt worried about the Covid-19, with approximately 71.7% of them expressing worry. One major source of worry was their concern for their families as the majority of them were still abroad and far away from homes after lockdown measures in many places. These worries, and the need to adhere to preventive measures, seemingly led to situations where 45.2% of the students were felt lonely.

3. Covid-19 and impact on student learning

On the academic front, the majority of the students felt that the Covid-19 pandemic had caused a major disruption of their academic activities with as much as 89.6% of them considering the effect from moderate to extremely large extent. We also invited the respondents to evaluate their satisfaction with their learning experience amidst the pandemic. The response was somewhat mixed with 49.6% of those responding to this question expressing slight to extreme satisfaction with current teaching and supervision arrangements by their institutions. Nonetheless, the international students were very positive about the future of their studies. Despite their worries about the pandemic, and the loneliness it was causing, the majority of the students (83.8%) were keen to return to their current institutions to continue their studies.

4. Policy implications

Addressing the major concerns raised by international students, universities must do more to support international students to obtain proper health information and social support systems. Given their immigration status and the somewhat unfamiliarity with the health systems they found themselves (as hinted by the respondents’ knowledge on help-seeking avenues), it is apparent these students would require more support to protect themselves and mentally deal with this pandemic and future health-related problems. The fact that the majority of the students rely on social media for Covid-19 information is concerning given the high likelihood of ‘infodemic’— inaccurate and sometimes, exaggerated health information — from such sources. ‘Infodemic’ can be a source of worriedness, especially during pandemics such as Covid-19. Moreover, higher education institutions must be prepared to find creative and healthy ways of supporting the social aspects of international students’ lives during challenging periods.

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