There may not be a direct correlation, but it appears that international conflicts and tensions have increased in the wake of the pandemic and its associated lockdowns. We have also been experiencing a global rise in the popularity of nationalist policies and politicians, which seemed highly unlikely just a few years ago when globalization was the mantra. At the same time, resistance has increased against migration, even when it’s refugees fleeing from conflict. To counter these disturbing trends, educators and policymakers should seek every opportunity to promote transnational education, be it through insisting on language and culture programs, encouraging internet collaboration with classes abroad, student exchange programs, or any form of study abroad.
The closure of borders and travel restrictions had a devastating effect on study abroad programs, especially here in the US, where government policy left many students from overseas stranded and reliant on charity to survive. Prior to the pandemic, China was a primary source of international students for several destination countries, sending out more than 710,000 students in 2019, of which 73% were in higher education. However, with the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Chinese students cancelled or changed their plans to study abroad for safety reasons or because of travel restrictions. More concerning is that the number of Chinese students in the US actually decreased from 2021 to 2022 after travel restrictions were lifted.
We have a much better chance of the US and China coexisting as amicable superpowers if the next generation of Chinese leaders have been welcomed as students in America, but we have been discouraging them, particularly through tighter visa regulations. By the same token, more US students should be encouraged to study overseas, especially in China. Although figures are hopefully rebounding somewhat now, only 382 Americans officially studied in China in 2020/21, down from over 11,000 in 2018/19. However, the prospect of thousands more Americans flocking to study in China is very unlikely when interest in learning Chinese has waned among students and parents of younger children. Nor has the situation been helped by the forced closure of Confucius Institutes in the US (and overseas) on the basis that they were controlled by the Chinese government, when that was always known from when they first opened.
Moving forward, new technologies and training in virtual learning could make international education and exchange easier to facilitate. We have seen institutions opening virtual pathways for students to participate in collaborative online learning (COIL) and in international internships, which could encourage cross-border understanding. But it’s likely that in the same way diverse communities need to interact together in informal ways to truly break down barriers, students from diverse cultures need unscripted social interaction to properly integrate. There need to be more opportunities for students to play and socialize together online, as well as collaborate on their studies.
As conflict between nations rises, we must respond by encouraging educational and cultural cooperation and collaboration. Whatever the ambitions of political leaders, mistrust and fear between peoples can be countered by proximity and understanding. Learning about distinct cultures and learning with people from different countries provides a basis on which we can all progress peacefully.