Researching international student mobility into a post-pandemic future (Part I)

Published 10 June 2020 / By Yi’En Cheng, Peidong Yang & Cora L. Xu

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A conversation between three scholars

This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

Within the short span of a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the global landscape of international student mobility (ISM) and higher education. To counter the virus spread, governments have drawn boundaries, erected borders, and restricted movements, creating a world of ISM that is like never before. To be sure, the pandemic will pass and international student mobility will return in one form or another. Even as this is being written, universities and countries that depend heavily on international tuition fees have already begun to unfold strategic policies to woo international students back.

This blog entry arises from a Zoom conversation that took place among the three of us, who are researchers studying different aspects of ISM. While much proverbial ink has been spilt taking stock of what has happened and speculating what might happen next, we think now is an appropriate time to look back at how the ongoing pandemic has reconfigured ISM and what it means for our research. Yet, we also want to be careful about this intellectual exercise, given that critical thinking could be viewed as unethical in times of crisis when practical urgency takes precedence over ‘treating reality as existing for the purpose of exemplifying our theories’ (Hage 2020: n.a.). As such, we adopt a critical-reflective mode of engagement with the topic to deliberately move away from making any substantial prediction about the future of ISM and turn, instead, to examine our research imaginations and approaches.

Re-imagining ISM: the subject and infrastructure of mobility (Part I)

Yi'En Cheng

Peidong Yang

Cora Lingling Xu

In the first half of this conversation, our focus is on how the pandemic has compelled us to re-imagine ISM and, specifically, the figure of the “international student”.





Yi’En: Research on ISM is necessarily animated by the international student, a figure that is both flesh and blood and a construct of our societies. As scholars of ISM, we also bring all kinds of politico-ethical sensibilities – and not forgetting biases as well – to our research and thereby shaping the complex webs of meanings spun around the figure of the international student.

Peidong: Certainly! In current scholarly and policy discourses, the mobile international student is a multi-faceted figure: a young person driven by educational desires and socioeconomic as well as cultural aspirations; a potential human resource to be appropriated by both sending (through “return”) and receiving countries (through immigration); a consumer (“cash cow”) out of whom profits can be made; and an agent of regional and global knowledge and cultural circulations; and many other things.

Cora: How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic might force us to rethink this subject of mobility?

Peidong: Well, I don’t have answers, but a few obvious questions come to mind. First, with geopolitical tensions flaring up and well-documented rise in everyday racism/xenophobia, how will potential mobile students reassess the desirability of physical mobility and recalibrate their desires and aspirations associated with studying abroad? To complicate the matter, as Lan (2019) has recently argued in the case of the Chinese students, the intermediary plays a crucial role in shaping study abroad decisions and trajectories. Thus, the re-figuring of the mobile student has to be investigated amidst dynamic relationships between multiple actors. Secondly, as many countries keep their borders shut, associating international travellers with risks of contagion, how will the relative priorities be juggled between public health and objectives of accumulating human capital and export-income by the receiving states? And thirdly, I wonder what would happen to the imagination of the international students as foot soldiers of cosmopolitanism, as protagonists of intercultural communication and understanding, when physical mobility becomes increasingly curtailed in favour of, if not gradually replaced by, forms of virtual mobilities.

Yi’En: That last point is crucial for ISM. The pandemic has lubricated the process in which online platforms and virtual technologies are being integrated as tools for higher education learning. It has also enlivened academic thinking about alternative pathways to internationalise higher education that are not dependent upon nor valorises physical mobility, with concepts like “internationalisation at a distance” and “internationalisation at home”. Part of my research has been to grapple with the idea of the immobile versus the mobile, and how this plays out through transnational higher education in an often complex manner regarding the ways students fashion their im/mobile subjectivities. The COVID-19 will further complicate this overlap between the “international student” who studies abroad versus the “transnational student” who studies locally. Given the future of higher education is bound to be even more mediated by a new economy of online learning, greater attention needs to be paid to the role of digital infrastructures (see Jayadeva 2020). Nonetheless, it is also important to keep a critical eye on the changing meanings of face-to-face encounters, learning communities, and physical campuses, and how these interface with their virtual counterparts.

Peidong: That is interesting! Indeed, these rapid developments necessitated by the pandemic seem to challenge us as scholars of ISM to reconceptualise the various meanings of student mobility and the mobile student.

Cora: Those are good perspectives, and I would agree with what both of you said. But for me, this pandemic has also prompted me to question my relationship, as a researcher of ISM, with my research subjects, in a more fundamental way. I began to reflect on the ethical nature of our relationship with those whom we research, and I began to think about what I call slow-caring scholarship in the time of the pandemic.

Yi’En: That sounds intriguing! Please share more!

Cora: OK, let me gather my thoughts, and let us continue in the second half of this conversation.

Read part II of the conversation here.

About the contributors:

Yi’En Cheng is a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Peidong Yang is Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Cora L. Xu is Lecturer in Education at Keele University, the UK


Hage, G. 2020. The haunting figure of the useless academic : Critical thinking in coronavirus time. European Journal of Cultural Studies. Early view.

Jayadeva, S. 2019. Keep calm and apply to Germany: how online communities mediate transnational student mobility from India to Germany. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 46(11): 2240-2257.

Lan, S. 2019. State‐mediated brokerage System in China's self‐funded study abroad market. International Migration, 57(3): 266-279.