Internationalization and sustainability. Reflections in pandemic and post-pandemic times

Arturo A. Paredes Rodríguez
The internationalization of higher education is a relatively new concept, although it has become a trend among higher education institutions (HEIs) not only in developed countries, but also in middle-income countries, as is the case of Mexico, and even in some (mainly private) institutions in developing countries. In public debate, the term has become a banner that brings prestige to participating universities, but also talent, new ideas that promote innovation, and even the personal and professional development of those who participate in internationalization programs.

Although there are many benefits that the internationalization of higher education generates, in a context of climate crisis, in which we must rethink our lifestyles and consumption, we must think about the cost of this process for the planet and for our societies. The COVID-19 pandemic that put the entire world in check in 2020 evidenced the need to reorient the internationalization plans of HEIs in the world, in which international mobility was stopped, while teaching expanded in the online world. 

2022 is generally seen as year zero for the return to a post-pandemic world. The rush to return to the lifestyles of the past is a shared feeling for many people anywhere. Although the crisis unleashed by COVID-19 seems to be coming to an end, climate crisis continues and will continue conditioning the actions of the international community in the immediate future. While the international system reconfigures itself in the face of this problem and other geopolitical tensions, HEIs will have to adapt their internationalization programs in this new world. 

The objective of this article is to expose the benefits and costs of the two dimensions of the internationalization of higher education: international mobility and internationalization from home, in a context of pandemic, post-pandemic and climate crisis. In the first section I will explain the meaning and dimensions of internationalization; then I will reflect on the lessons learned in the pandemic and post-pandemic regarding sustainability and internationalization, and finally, I will address the dilemma that internationalization brings to the sustainability of the planet and our societies.

Internationalization of higher education 
The internationalization of higher education is a trend that began more than 30 years ago when the Erasmus program was launched among the countries that at that time were part of the European Economic Community, a prelude to the European Union (EU). The context of internationalization and its subsequent success is due to various factors. Greater liberalization of the economy, accompanied by a political climate more prone to multilateralism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union two years later, led to an increase in the flow of goods, services, ideas and people. In addition to this, the Erasmus program had a more ambitious objective: the promotion of the European integration project among its citizens. Thus, the banner of globalization, of openness to diversity, to discovering the world, to intercultural exchanges, began to move the minds and desires of, perhaps, just a few thousand students from more and more countries. 

35 years later, the numbers and origins of participating students and researchers, as well as the institutions involved, have changed enormously; According to the European Commission, in 2019 more than 300,000 students participated in one of Erasmus+ programmes (European Commission, 2019). It is estimated that in 2018 there were some 5.8 million international students in the world, mainly from Asia-Pacific and Oceania, whose main destinations continued to be institutions in developed countries, especially English-speaking countries, in addition to Germany, France and Russia (T.I.M.E. Association, 2021). Mexico and other Latin American countries joined these dynamics in the late 1990s. In 2017, almost 30,000 Mexican students went abroad to study or do professional internships, while the country received just over 20,000 foreign students (IIE, 2021). 

But what exactly is the internationalization of higher education? It should be understood as a process, but not a goal, in which intercultural, international and global dimensions are introduced in higher education, to improve the quality of teaching and research (De Wit & Altbach, 2021). This process can be divided into two dimensions: the one that happens abroad (often called international mobility) and the one that happens “at home”, that is, from within the participating universities. 

International mobility is the most visible face of internationalization processes. It is also the aspiration of many students who dream of living abroad for a few months. This modality includes exchange programs, students taking full programs abroad (especially master’s and doctoral degrees), internships and short courses, for example, in languages. International mobility does not only include students, since HEIs also send and receive professors and administrative staff. 

Internationalization at home refers to elements such as the standardization and updating of study programs, the negotiation of agreements between various universities or the creation of joint study programs. This dimension of internationalization has at least three objectives: a) make HEIs more attractive and competitive in the educational market; b) make the programs more standardized for the labor market, giving students the necessary and required skills to advance in their professional careers; c) provide another series of skills focused on the human development of students, educating for the strengthening of active citizenship, sensitive to the diversity that exists in this globalized world. This last objective will be addressed later. 

Both dimensions of internationalization have been present in HEIs programs since at least the 1990s (see box below). Much is said about the benefits that this internationalization brings, but it is also necessary to mention the costs for the sustainability of the planet and the human development of our societies. In the next section I will focus on explaining how the pandemic caused by COVID-19, and the current post-pandemic stage, have served as a social laboratory to deepen our understanding of these two dimensions of internationalization and their impact on social and planetary sustainability.

Europe and Erasmus+
The Erasmus program was launched in 1987 among the members of the European Economic Community. 12 years later, in 1999, the Bologna Process was completed, focused on standardizing higher education programs in the region. Bologna laid the foundations for the subsequent European Higher Education Area, in which 49 countries from Europe and Asia plus the European Commission participate.

Between pandemic and post pandemic
Rumors of an unknown disease in a distant country barely frustrated the travel plans of millions of people around the world at the end of 2019. A few months later, between February and March 2020, the microscopic enemy declared war on all of humanity, achieving something never seen before in contemporary history: an induced coma of the international economy, draconian measures of confinement and tracing, dramatic numbers of deaths, closed borders.

The setback was greater for students in international mobility, as well as for receiving and issuing HEIs. While many students returned to their countries of origin, disappointed to have to leave behind the dream of living an experience abroad, many others had no choice but to stay in their host countries, with few social contacts, strong measures of confinement and few options to socialize in person. In turn, the internationalized HEIs were forced to manage student repatriations, pause international student applications, help their students stranded abroad… All this while higher education migrated from the physical to the virtual classroom. The latter seems less complicated in perspective, since the availability of more online spaces is here to stay, but for HEIs and students with limited resources, this change was rather stormy and left new victims along the way: students unable to access a computer had to drop out of school.

The pandemic and the immobility of social life resulting from the lockdowns also hinted at other problems present in cities and in the daily lives of millions of students, not only international ones, for example: reduced living spaces, overcrowding, housing scarcity, high prices, lack of services, and even tensions between cohabitants or between tenants and landlords, and in extreme cases, an increase in xenophobic attitudes in host countries. The appearance of effects on the mental health of millions of international students did not took long: anxiety, depression and irritability soon appeared. How wouldn’t they? They were natural effects when no one knew when would the pandemic be over, without even having the opportunity to get to know the campus or see classmates in person, nor of those cultural exchanges that are not learned in the classroom, but in the daily life of the receiving societies. The icing on the cake: uncertainty of the near future, of one’s own health and that of loved ones who remain in the country of origin.

Even so, public opinion echoed an immediate “positive” collateral effect, resulting from the measures to deal with the pandemic: the reduction of greenhouse gases produced by human activity in 2020. However, this decrease is actually insignificant; in that year, humanity reduced its CO2 emission by just 5.15%, compared to pre-pandemic values. Optimism did not last long: in 2021, we almost reached the CO2 levels of 2019 (Tiseo, 2022), a trend that will very possibly continue along 2022.

It could be said that the planet benefited from this induced coma in economic activity and, in general, in social life. However, the price that our societies had to pay was high. The pandemic forced us to change our lifestyles and somehow, we forgot how to socialize. In 2022 there is a generalized rush to enjoy leisure away from home, trips, concerts, massive events and more. Unfortunately, trying to return to pre-pandemic lifestyles comes at a cost, and it is the planet that pays the bill. Although in the last two years the numbers of flights in the world prior to the pandemic (38.9 million) have not been recovered, there were still 19.3 million flights in 2021 (Burgueño Salas, 2022).

Some data to reflect on: per capita production of CO2 in the world in 2018 was 4.8 tons (Climate Watch, 2020). The maximum recommended amount that one person should produce per year in order to stop climate change is three tons (Lim, 2010). A trip from Mexico City to Amsterdam produces exactly three tons of CO2. We need to admit that travel and international mobility are a major source of pollution.

The internationalization dilema
Both HEIs and students are facing a dilemma: more international mobility means more CO2 emissions for the planet, and more pressure on cities that can barely offer housing to their own inhabitants, as exemplified by the student housing crisis, especially foreigners, experienced in The Netherlands in 2021 (NOS Nieuws, 2021). More internationalization from home will represent fewer opportunities for students to develop intercultural and social skills, to learn about other worldviews, and to learn from other experiences that can only be acquired when living abroad. In this context, there are two unavoidable questions: what is the future of higher education internationalization? Can it be more sustainable?

To answer these questions, we must bear in mind that internationalization processes vary in each HEI, country and region, so the adaptation of internationalization programs to the post-pandemic reality will not be the same. Climate adaptation requires major changes in our lifestyles and consumption, including less air travel. In addition, it must be said that the world in 2022 is more hostile than 30 years ago: more powers fight each other for hegemony, showing a greater rejection of multilateralism. Society itself is experiencing greater tensions, as a result of the costs and readjustments of the post-pandemic international economy, which has fueled anti-immigration discourses, and all this seasoned with the maelstrom unleashed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the reaction of Western democracies. These factors will influence internationalization programs in the world, since countries will focus on addressing the various social tensions, which for higher education translates into privileging national students over foreigners.

In more specific terms, the EU countries will privilege a regionalization of mobility in higher education (that is, a deepening of programs such as Erasmus+), in addition to the fact that other forms of transport such as the train are less polluting than intercontinental travel. Mexico and Latin American countries can learn a lot from the European experience, but they will have to adapt to this new context in which there will be fewer opportunities to stay abroad, as well as fewer scholarships for master’s degrees and doctorates. A sign of this lies in the closing of Nuffic Neso—entity in charge of the internationalization of Dutch HEIs abroad—office in Mexico City, in 2021, which responds to this readjustment in the internationalization policy of higher education of the Netherlands.

While internationalization abroad tends to slow down, internationalization at home will very likely continue to expand. The online classroom, for example, can enhance the objective of integrating international elements in teaching, by opening opportunities for more international academic programs or events, where more students and researchers can participate. The online space also has the potential to create collaboration between people from different countries, at a lower cost both for the pocket and for the emission of polluting gases.

It is widely criticized that internationalization from home limits the development of intercultural skills as there are no interactions between students from different countries. This need not be so. An education based on cosmopolitan values, where tolerance, hospitality and a genuine interest in understanding the others’ worldviews are emphasized, to raise awareness of the responsibilities and obligations that we have with other humans and with our environment, can foster the development of a more active and more sustainable citizenship.
MA. Arturo A. Paredes Rodríguez is an internationalist from UNAM. He studied his master’s in Human Geography and Planning at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. He currently works as a team leader for the StuDocu-StudeerSnel Trading Platform in Amsterdam.

English version by Zoraida Pérez.

Burgueño Salas, E. (June 13, 2022). “Number of flights performed by the global airline industry from 2004 to 2022.” Statista, Internet statistical portal (https://www.statista.com/statistics/564769/airline-industry-number-of-flights/#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20flights%20performed,reached%2038.9%20million%20in%202019).
Climate Watch (2020). GHG Emissions. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute (https://www.climatewatchdata.org/ghg-emissions?end_year=2019&start_year=1990).
De Wit, H., & Altbach, P. G. (2021). “Internationalization in higher education: global trends and recommendations for its future.” Policy Reviews in Higher Education, 5: 28-46.
European Commission (2019). “Nine things you didn’t know about Erasmus!” In The European Commission’s profile at Medium (https://europeancommission.medium.com/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-erasmus-41bb2c8ebd9c#:~:text=Each%20year%2C%20more%20than%20300%2C000,train%20under%20the%20Erasmus%2B%20umbrella).
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