Closed borders need not mean closed minds

Closed borders need not mean closed minds

Amid border entry restrictions and mandatory quarantines, international higher education students from across the Indo-Pacific region, including Southeast Asia, seeking higher education abroad are facing difficult times. Yet, closed borders need not mean minds closed to the benefits of international education.

Admittedly, the reality is that the lived experience of cross-cultural, in-person education and the understanding it fosters can never be replaced by a Zoom webinar or a Skype call.

This is likely all too clear for the tens of thousands of higher education students from Thailand who regularly seek to study in China but who have faced difficulties entering China given the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Institute of International Education, Thailand has been the No.2 source of international higher education students in China.

Some 50,600 Korean higher education students were in China in the 2019 school year, followed by 28,608 from Thailand, 28,023 from Pakistan, 23,198 from India and 20,936 from the United States, according to IIE.

In the near term, however, for many of these and others among the 5.3 million higher education students studying internationally in 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it hardships in areas ranging from finances to mental health. This has included challenges for international students studying abroad as well as the institutions themselves.

Indeed. Speaking to a virtual audience during the Milken Institute's 2020 Global Conference, Carol Christ, the Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, stated unequivocally that dependence on travel was the one issue higher education had to resolve in the coming decade.

In one example of the very real impact of closed borders, impacted higher education students unable to get back into China as that nation has prioritised visiting business people over returning students have even taken to a social media campaign using hashtags, #TakeUsBacktoChina and #TakeUsBackToSchool.

There can be no full substitute for studying in person via going online. This is particularly true when it comes to laboratory or field work, or medical residency programmes. Governments that have chosen to suspend student visas should err on the side of greater communication and compassion to students whose lives and education have been interrupted by travel bans.

From first-hand experience including at New York University Abu Dhabi and in our work across the Indo-Pacific region from the Milken Institute Asia Center in Singapore, we know that international education can be a crucial ingredient for success in our global age. So, what can be learned from home now, even as we and others push for the eventual reopening of borders to students once broad-brush restrictions are refined?

Fortunately, travelling and studying abroad are not the only ways to acquire the core skills and open minds associated with international education. Students, institutions, businesses, and policymakers can all play a role in advocating for global education and fostering the right environments for intercultural learning even when travel restrictions seemingly limit the opportunities to "go global".

Just as technology has helped transform shopping and healthcare through e-commerce and telemedicine respectively, so too have technological advances allowed learning and cultural institutions to expand their reach and impact.

Look both to home and abroad. Singapore's Asian Civilizations Museum, for example, is one of many museums in our region offering virtual tours of their collections, allowing viewers a chance to learn more about Asian cultures and histories.

International education is also about acquiring the empathy, open-mindedness, and emotional intelligence necessary for dialogue across differences. A range of organizations can again offer guidance and resources virtually.

As the US celebrates February as Black History Month, one example is the array of helpful digital materials provided by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington DC to help inform discussions on race. Similarly, the online offerings of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative build on its commitment to challenge racial and economic injustice.

Studying abroad has also often been a chance to immerse oneself in a new language. A second language can be a valuable tool for understanding another culture. Online learning options have emerged as virtual substitutes, albeit certainly not as compelling as ordering a bowl of noodles while trying out a local language in Southeast Asia or mandarin Chinese or the local dialect in China.

Here, mobile apps also have made picking up a new language a little easier. Platforms such as Duolingo offer gamified language learning, and Busuu even gives learners feedback from native speakers.

But students are not the only ones responsible for developing a global mindset. Academic institutions and businesses, along with governments, can play a key role in ensuring that students have access to the necessary support. An enduring digital divide must be addressed to ensure all have access to education both during and after the age of Covid-19.

Global universities like New York University in Abu Dhabi and George Mason University Korea have stepped up to coordinate community funds for students and staff who were affected by the pandemic.

Covid-19 has also left a mental health crisis in its wake, and many institutions have recognised the toll that pandemic uncertainty and social isolation has had on students. To spur philanthropic efforts and advance lessons learned, the Center for Strategic Philanthropy at the Milken Institute has been working with key philanthropists and stakeholders to understand how to further support students' social and emotional well-being.

Beyond an important, understandable focus on quality higher education, business leaders and policymakers also have an important role to play in pushing for access to education. Covid-19 has made all too clear the numerous long-standing inequalities in education access, and many countries have already begun bridging this digital divide.

Teachers and students in Indonesia, for example, may draw on internet subsidies from the government, as well as free internet packages from companies including Telkomsel to facilitate their education. Similar strategies can be used to fill hardware gaps. For example, Singapore's Ministry of Education has loaned out laptops and tablets to students in need.

Yet, as much as these recommendations can help us further the goals of a global education, there is no real substitute to travelling to and immersing oneself in a higher education program in another country.

The challenge today is not to propose permanent alternatives to global education while governments work to ensure health and safety as well as re-opened borders. Rather, in Asia and elsewhere, our shared goal is to identify and scale up sustainable and resilient ways for our nations' youth to maintain a global outlook as international student mobility gradually recovers during the next 5 years. Such strategies will be especially useful as we move toward alternative financial and residential models for higher education.

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," Nelson Mandela famously said. "The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation."

Across every sector of society -- public, private and not-for-profit -- we all have a role to play in ensuring we do not lose any momentum in advancing education and shared community despite the pandemic.

International education is not just about getting on a plane. It is a mindset. And that is a lesson learned that endures in the face of Covid-19 and applies whether in Thailand, Singapore, the United States, or elsewhere. Even in the near-term absence of plane flights and robust study abroad programmes, we can indeed each go global from home.

Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is the inaugural Asia Fellow of the Milken Institute. Athena Thomas, a recent graduate of New York University Abu Dhabi, works on Policy & Programmes at the Milken Institute Asia Center in Singapore. Follow Mr Chin on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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