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Coronavirus pandemic halts internationalisation – how the virus continues to impact globalisation

Kristaps Kovaļonoks | 07.04.2020

For the past few weeks now, most of us have been haunted by uncertainty about how coronavirus outbreak is affecting our lives currently and in near future. The situation worldwide is rather unpleasant. Travel bans have been issued by most countries, people are advised against mass gatherings, and shopping malls are deserted. Numerous countries, like Spain, Italy, UK, and India are in lockdown. Furthermore, most businesses are facing difficult times and employers, if possible, are forced to work from home in efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. Working from home, sadly, is not something everyone can do, and thus many people are being laid off on daily basis because of an economic recession.

The crisis has clearly shocked us all, as the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has caused a global pandemic with constantly increasing numbers. Here in Finland, around 2300 people have been infected up till now, while worldwide more than 1.39 million coronavirus cases have been registered. Uusimaa, probably the most popular and busiest region in Finland with around 1.7 million inhabitants, is on complete lockdown.

Coronavirus impact on University of Turku (UTU)

Even though Finland and the University of Turku monitored the coronavirus situation calmly before initiating the lockdown of different facilities (e.g. university buildings, exam rooms, libraries, and sports facilities), such a sudden decision surprised both the students and the teaching staff. For example, many international students “trapped” in a new country with limited financial resources and uncertainty about how to proceed with their studies reported panic. Following authorities’ decisions, many exchange students have been urged by either their home countries or universities to return. According to a recent data received by the UTU’s International Office, around 25 % of exchange students have now left Turku. In addition, about 40 % of Finnish students have halted their exchange studies and returned to Finland.

The coronavirus situation is clearly shaping higher education as we speak. Universities around the world have been closed, while most teaching is either cancelled or moved online. All upcoming conferences, study trips and exchange programmes, too, have been either cancelled or postponed to a later date. Teachers are forced to quickly adapt to the rapidly evolving situation by making the most out of digital learning tools available. On the other hand, students, often referred to as digital natives these days, must get quickly acquainted to independent remote studying. Only time will show how this situation will affect the academic quality and student learning.

Finland's prompt response to pandemic

During the state of emergency, Finland has been very successful in quickly switching to telecommuting and distance learning. But HOW? According to European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2019 rankings, Finland, for the first time, is the most digitally advanced country in Europe. DESI measures Europe’s overall digital performance while focusing on five different factors (table below). Report indicates that Finland is ranked highest in digital public services and human capital, while it also excels in integration of digital technologies.

Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2019 ranking

Nevertheless, it is difficult to predict how the coronavirus outbreak will worsen and how will it affect the internationalisation of higher education. In a research study carried out by University World News, education journalists and experts argue that there will hardly be any disruptions to internationalisation, while others point out that this crisis will hugely transform international education for the foreseeable future.

How internationalisation is evolving in Turku

While nobody really knows when the crisis will finally be over, it is no secret that student mobility has already lost its popularity over the recent years. Here in Turku, Finland, both the Student Union and the University of Turku have researched the issue. Through many surveys, we have learned that insufficient funding, mental health issues, low amount of credits and hurry to graduate are just a few of the many reasons why students choose to not go abroad (e.g. exchange studies, traineeship or full time degree studies).

Furthermore, over the recent years, Finland has presented some demographic challenges by having an increasing lack of sufficient and qualified workforce. For this very reason, the Finnish Government in cooperation with higher education institutions and other institutional bodies has actively marketed its education to international talents abroad. “Immigration is not only about us helping people who move here. We must identify the skills they have and find out how to benefit from their talent”, said Sonja Hämäläinen, Migration Director from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, in an interview emphasizing that Finland needs immigration as the solution to its demographic challenges. The long-term consequence of coronavirus on immigration worldwide, and Finland in particular, will be analysed with the passage of time.

In 2017, The Finnish National Agency for Education carried out a research on foreign degree students in Finnish higher education institutions. The research demonstrated that foreign students accounted for 6.8 % of students in universities of applied sciences and 7% in universities. The largest number of people came from Russia, Vietnam, China, Nepal and India. For sure, it would be interesting to see how the numbers have changed and will continue to change in near future, especially since there has been a noticeable decline from 2016.

Foreign degree students in higher education institutions

Tough times will pass over…

The backbone of internationalisation is partnerships with organisations, institutions, universities and multilateral networks that support student and scholar mobility. There is no doubt that globalisation is being affected with every passing day of the pandemic. However, one can hope that by joint efforts we will overcome the coronavirus crisis and undo the damage. Finland needs international talent, and it does have lots to offer – free education with generous scholarships for non-EU/EEA students, safety, gender equality, great student benefits and much more.

Through these difficult times, it is crucial to stay positive and get in touch with others online. That is why International Sector will go live on Zoom for the second time on Thursday, April 16 from 13:00-14:00. Join our live session with or without a video and with or without a microphone. Chat is an option, too!

Read out more about our Zoom live here

TYY Board Member, International Affairs
Kristaps Kovaļonoks