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What does the Coronavirus Pandemic Mean for Academic Mobility?

Published 11 December 2020 / By Jenna Althoff

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Introduction

This post is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum and is co-published with Routed. Migration & (Im)Mobility Magazine.

For early career scholars, mobility is an important component of their professional development and often a prerequisite for career advancement. Taking the personal experience of a suspended fellowship as an example, this article offers some important reflections upon international academic mobility and global inequality in Higher Education demonstrating both the value of mobility within academia as well as some pressing questions and challenges.

 

It was an exciting prospect. In January 2020, I had been selected for a competitive fellowship at a leading research center in my field. I was to start working there in late spring 2020, so during the

last few months before moving I devised elaborate plans on the many activities, encounters, and goals for this limited but hopefully intensive work stay. Joyful anticipation was in the air.

When in early spring I had organized everything this move required, the pandemic hit in Western Europe, and in between one government announcement and two emails, I found my carefully crafted plans of moving countries frozen indefinitely. Instead of embarking on long discussions of the latest developments in my field with new esteemed colleagues, I was confined home, worried about close family members vulnerable to this new virus called SARS-CoV-2.

Beyond rendering my organizing efforts futile, I worried about the lack of progress in my work, missing on chances to advance my career, fundamental changes to academic job markets, and also the social relations we were going to find ourselves living in after this time of lockdown.

Relationships between mobility and education – prerequisite, driver, outcome

In Western Europe, educational mobility itself is a fundamental track for many young people to move into adulthood. Numbers vary considerably across EU countries on when exactly young adults leave that ‘nest’ and move into their own space, but without a doubt that step is regarded as substantial.

And while educational mobility is ever increasing among young people globally, a much smaller percentage of these choose to make ‘education’ and ‘research’ their profession. Meaning that they will embark on an additional educational path to gain the academic degree that allows them a career in this field – usually a Ph.D. degree and some more years of postdoctoral work experience.

With the transition to becoming-an-academic, often further mobility is involved: pursuing a Ph.D. at specialized and renowned institutes abroad, embarking on longer fieldwork for data collection, or travelling for conferences and workshops in one’s respective field, and eventually a relocating to take up a position that matches one’s qualification.

But looking at the full journey of becoming-an-academic, mobility is not just a result of education, and a side-effect to a career in higher education, it is often a prerequisite for embarking on such a career path in the first place. Access to mobility at all stages of the educational path (degree in higher education, doctoral education, early career in higher education) is crucial to this profession.

The current pandemic has certainly changed the way academia is accessible and what kind of mobility is needed to access it. 

Mobility as privilege, Mobility as pleasure
With the suspension of my fellowship, I could feel the interruption to that anticipated progression into academia-as-profession. I was stuck without a prospect of moving on anytime soon, and without the perspective of finding an adequate equivalent job outside of academia either.

Experiencing the effects of this immobilization on my own trajectory, I felt a novel set of ‘mobility rules’ applied to my whereabouts, different from those imposed upon me by my gender, my nationality, or other attributes of my existence. Abiding by this new set of rules underlined the value of previously taken-for-granted mobility.

Having perceived the various forms of mobility that my status as an academic afforded me – think conferences, summer schools, field work, fellowships – merely as a pleasurable side-effect, I now regard them as a precious privilege. Friends got confused, asking me whether my research focus on migration governance had not prepared me for the variety of restrictions and their effects. I chuckled, but inside I struggled to come to terms with how ignorant I had been on the work realities of many of my fellow colleagues who experienced restrictions to their (academic) mobility long before this current pandemic hit. I simply had never questioned their access to mobility.

Far from having served as an equalizer in the grand scheme of things, the pandemic has however highlighted the dissonance between an increasingly internationalizing and diversifying academia, and the differentiating effects of unequal access to mobility. These effects of immobility experienced by myself during the pandemic have been a structuring reality for too many of my fellow colleagues around the world.

The prerequisite of academic experience afforded by mobility continues to be a discriminatory factor on the global job market (for academics). The pandemic has acted as a powerful reminder of this existing inequality of global mobility regimes and access to education, and their lasting effects on personal developments.

Moving (Away From) Inequality in Academia?

If the process of becoming-an-academic will rely less on actual physical mobility, how will socialization into different departmental and national academic cultures be achieved in the future? This question opens avenues for thinking more in terms of creating and curating personal networks across former boundaries, bringing to the fore novel questions of access and exclusion. The pandemic will not be the panacea for abolishing mechanisms of advancing some over others, but it will certainly redraw the boundary-making processes currently in place.

Ultimately, I ventured over the border to embark on this new chapter of building relations. I passed the frontier in August without as much as having my passport checked. I had the pleasure to have enjoyed many coffees with fellow researchers over our different writing strategies, the coding of project data, or local integration concepts, and have fulfilled my objective of building new relations.

But while I had the privilege of enjoying such mobility again (albeit under pandemic-shaped circumstances), I keep wondering how the future of academic mobility will look like. Is this pandemic a unique circumstance or merely a glimpse into the future of young academia? And inversely: Our lives are built on this very premise of being mobile. How will academia change if this mobility can no longer be taken for granted?

 

Jenna Althoff is an advanced PhD candidate at the Central European University (CEU), Budapest/Hungary, and is founder of CEU's migration research group. You can follow her curated selection of research publications, news articles, and other information related to migration & mobility on Facebook at Migration Policy in a European Context.