APRU on SCMP: Virtual foreign exchange allowing students to ‘study abroad’ without leaving home will outlast Covid-19
January 12, 2022
  • Virtual technology has not only allowed study abroad experiences to continue during the pandemic, but made them more accessible to less privileged students
  • With international travel likely to remain a luxury in a post-pandemic world, online student exchanges offer an affordable alternative
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Written by Professor Rocky S. Tuan
Original post on SCMP

A lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University leads an online class on March 17, 2020. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
A lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University leads an online class on March 17, 2020. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Knowledge has no boundaries. This is especially true in a global society, with more and more students crossing borders to access overseas education. Going abroad to study or on exchange has become a rite of passage for millions of young people around the world.

According to an OECD report published in 2020, the number of tertiary students pursuing education in a foreign country reached 5.6 million in 2018, more than doubling over the last 20 years. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development also projected that the international student population is likely to reach 8 million by 2025.

This phenomenal growth is attributed to the rise of the middle class in developing economies as well as a shortage of high-quality institutions in much of the developing world. The relative affordability and accessibility of international air travel, as well as the rapid development of communication technology, means students can be increasingly mobile while remaining connected to friends and family in their home countries.

But the emergence of Covid-19 changed all this. As with so many areas of our lives, the pandemic has massively disrupted the traditional approach to international education; it threatened to erase decades of progress as the world retreated into quarantine almost two years ago.

Travel restrictions, border closures, public health measures and pandemic politics have led to a significant decline in international student enrolment levels in most leading host countries.

International students in Sydney, Australia, return to China following the outbreak of Covid-19, on August 20, 2020. Photo: Reuters
International students in Sydney, Australia, return to China following the outbreak of Covid-19, on August 20, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Short-term exchange programmes, which are the backbone of the internationalisation agenda for so many universities, have seen a particularly sharp drop. Short-term overseas experiences are critical for fostering people-to-people links across nations, and provide students with the cultural smarts to forge global careers. Their absence is a potential tragedy for globalisation.

Demand for full-degree programmes in top host countries has declined by as much as 20 per cent, but short-term programmes have fallen even further, with demand in many cases evaporating altogether. As universities and analysts think about recovery, it is forecast to take at least five years for international student mobility to return to pre-pandemic levels.

What are universities doing about this, and where does a place like Hong Kong fit in?

Far from passively waiting for borders to reopen, universities have been reimagining their approach to student mobility and harnessing the power of technology to deliver immersive international student experiences.

This is much bigger than putting everything on Zoom or other virtual platforms. The novel approach has the potential to revolutionise access to international experiences and make global education accessible to anyone with an internet connection, rather than merely to those privileged few with financial means to jump on a plane and spend up to a year in a foreign land.

According to a survey by the International Association of Universities in 2020, 60 per cent of universities have replaced physical student mobility with virtual mobility or collaborative online learning.

Hong Kong is a global city, and its openness to international talent has underwritten much of its development and prosperity – the territory was simply not built to be isolated from the rest of the world. The pandemic could have been catastrophic to its educational exchanges, and indeed to the very fabric of Hong Kong’s people-to-people links with mainland China and overseas.

Home to four top-100 global universities and the headquarters of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU), an alliance of 61 leading universities from four continents on both sides of the Pacific, Hong Kong has taken a leadership role in developing innovative solutions which allow crucial international student exchange to thrive despite the headwinds of a once-in-a-century global health crisis.

One prime example is the Virtual Student Exchange (VSE) programme conceptualised and managed by the Chinese University of Hong Kong under the auspices of APRU.

Launched in August 2020, the exchange programme enables students of APRU member universities to take online academic courses on a plethora of topics and participate in culturally enriched co-curricular programmes as well as establish social peer networks, without needing to leave their home countries.

Tech-driven and highly immersive, the programme received a commendation at the Times Higher Education’s prestigious Asia awards in 2021. Today, thousands of students from around the world have completed an exchange via the Virtual Student Exchange, and such virtual international experiences look set to endure post pandemic.

Students of Chinese University of Hong Kong celebrate their graduation on November 4 last year. Even as we recover from the pandemic, the virtual student exchange platform pioneered during the pandemic is likely to endure. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
Students of Chinese University of Hong Kong celebrate their graduation on November 4 last year. Even as we recover from the pandemic, the virtual student exchange platform pioneered during the pandemic is likely to endure. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

This has got to be a good thing for expanding access to high-quality university education and achieving one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Academic studies show that students who undertake international exchange outperform their peers in areas such as teamwork, empathy, work ethic and communication – areas essential for the future of work and economies everywhere.

It is clear that, as much as we all yearn for the return of quarantine-free international travel, a simple return to physical overseas experiences would mean only those with adequate economic means can benefit from them.

As the world thinks about navigating a new normal at the other side of this seemingly endless pandemic, it is fitting that Hong Kong – Asia’s World City – is blazing a new trail for the future of international education.

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