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Johanna Waters

January 5th, 2021

Covid-19 and International Student Mobility. Some reflections.

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Johanna Waters

January 5th, 2021

Covid-19 and International Student Mobility. Some reflections.

0 comments | 37 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

“One consequence of this pandemic has been an appreciation of the importance of international students – and the ways in which certain countries have taken them for granted and neglected them”, writes  Prof. Johanna Waters (Professor of Human Geography at University College London)


Prof. Johanna Waters is speaking at LSE Southeast Asia Week 2020


As the International and Affiliate Student Tutor in the Department of Geography, UCL, this past eight months have been quite challenging. I have seen first-hand the disappointment of students getting their overseas placements either cancelled or moved online. Students travelling to Europe have had to get to grips with fluctuating Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice and its impacts on potential visa applications and insurance – all things we previously took for granted as relatively straightforward and unproblematic. Some students, desperate for their year abroad, have chosen to defer their studies and return next year to try again, with all the uncertainty surrounding that decision. So, despite international student mobility being a research interest of mine, Covid-19 has also directly impacted other areas of my work, too.

Covid-19 is a ‘Global Event’. Alan Ingram (2019) describes a Global Event as ‘a disruptive transformation of the world and of ways of sensing and making sense of it’ (p.11). It is ‘something that marks a break, shift or bifurcation in the way things are and the ways they work.’ It is also ‘a forceful embodied occurrence, in that it challenges established ways of being and feeling in the world’ (ibid.) Furthermore, Sidhu et al (2016) argue that circulations of students have ‘deterritorialising and destabilising affects’ (p. 1497, emphasis in original). What, then, happens when the deterritorialising and destabilising impacts of international student mobility confront a global pandemic such as Covid-19? I offer some tentative reflections on this.


Covid-19 rendering international students visible

There are three points I would like to explore briefly in relation to Covid-19 and international student mobilities. The first concerns the taken-for-granted nature of international education and the way in which Covid-19 has rendered international students visible: to countries, institutions and the public more generally. Within countries in the Global North (but not so elsewhere, of course – and I will come back to this), international students have remained largely invisible, coming to public attention only in relation to discussions of immigration policy or when subject to racism and bodily violence. Covid-19 has increased students’ visibility and highlighted understanding of their undeniable importance to economies and societies.

As I have argued and many other scholars have argued, the invisibility of international students is an ethical issue, and feeds into their treatment and, in some cases, neglect (in the classroom and beyond). Their visibility relates to questions of embodiment and how their bodies have been perceived, represented and treated throughout the pandemic to date. Students’ bodies have become seen as vectors of disease and one of the consequences of this has been widespread reports of racism. Clearly this has been directly fuelled by the way in which the president of the United States, for example, has described Covid-19 as a ‘Chinese disease’ or ‘China virus’ and continually stresses the speed with which borders were closed to China.

The extent to which international students are absent from policy, media and public debates in, for example, the UK, is notable. Contrast this, however, with the heightened visibility of international students within state-level discourses and debates in parts of Asia. Singapore’s approach to international students is an excellent example of this. As highlighted by Yang (2016) in his discussion of Singapore’s ‘foreign talent programme’, the recruitment of international students through its bonded scholarship scheme has been far more than a short-term goal for the Singaporean state. He describes the ‘public and symbolic dimension’ to this policy – how the ‘foreign scholar figure functions as a public symbol’ (ibid., p. 3). As Yang (2016, p.4) describes,

International educational mobility…often interlaces the instrumental desires and designs of the nation-state, of institutions of higher learning, with the autonomous desires and life-projects of individual social agents (such as mobile students and their families or communities).

Singapore’s Global School House project initiated in the early 2000s gave a central role to international students in the future development and sustainability of the city-state. This can be juxtaposed with the almost invisible figure of the international student in the West; with the fact that international student mobility has been so brutally disconnected from the ‘desires and designs of the nation-state’, even as international students are and have been so important to the functioning and expansion of higher education in the West (and yet, not discussed as such). That is, until the onset of Covid-19, where media stories have covered in far more detail the experiences of international students.

Initially, students were ridiculed and targeted for wearing masks, way before it became accepted and mandated practice in the West. Later on, students were assumed to be themselves ‘infected’: anecdotal as well as preliminary research findings would suggest widespread experiences of racism – from micro-aggressions to verbal abusive and even full-scale assault. Mittelmeier and Cockayne (2020) produced a report on rising Sinophobia following Covid-19, looking at 65,000 twitter posts about international students between January and April 2020. Commonly, students were described as ‘disease carriers’ and a fear of catching Covid-19 from international students was expressed. By March, posts reflected a more sympathetic attitude towards the inconsiderate way in which students had been treated. The way in which much of this debate has proceeded – emphasising students’ bodies – has been extremely interesting.

There are related debates on the impact of Covid-19 on BAME groups in the context of the UK that may or may not be relevant to understanding how international students’ bodies have coped with the disease (Covid-19 has killed disproportionately more people from minority or ethnic communities) (Public Health England, 2020). Furthermore, Miguel Lim (2020) has argued that students are themselves extremely concerned about their bodily safety, which is likely to have an impact on future decision-making around their international mobilities. My own work (Waters, 2020) presents a fuller discussion of the embodied (in)visibilities of international students.


Reliance on international student mobility

The second theme concerns the ways in which certain countries have become reliant upon international students, from particular countries in East and Southeast Asia but, most notably, China. The ‘cash cow’ has come to the fore in recent discussions – international students are just worth so much money. They are monetarised objects.  Their bodies are monetarised. And the potential impact of borders to international students being closed, and students going elsewhere for their studies has been, for some countries (particularly Australia) potentially devastating.

A recent Centre for Global Higher Education webinar focused specifically upon Australia and its hitherto ‘very successful international higher education system’. In an average year around 1/3 of total students are international, with resulting serious questions raised about financial sustainability. The VC of Monash University described the impacts of Covid-19 as “diverse” “all consuming”. She said the impact on Australian universities was immediate and that universities have been in ‘crisis management mode’ ever since. Australia was one of the first countries in the world to close its borders to people from China at the end of January, following Russia, Japan, Pakistan and Italy. The financial impact over Australia’s eight leading universities has been 2.2bn Australian dollars. Fifty one percent of research in Australia is funded by universities themselves, not by government, and much of this money comes from international student tuition fees. China represents around a third of all international students in Australia and so closing borders to China, and damaging relations with Chinese students, is likely to have a knock on effect on Australia’s HE system for many years to come, as Simon Marginson noted in this webinar (CGHE, 2020).


The future of international higher education

The third point concerns the question: ‘what might the impacts of Covid-19 be on the future of international student mobility?’ Emergent regional patterns are, we can speculate, likely to be reinforced. One report, in particular, has stressed that students in the future are likely to be disinclined to travel to the west and instead will favour Japan, Hong Kong and China (Xiong et al., 2020). That said, figures for this academic year show a mixed picture in this regard. Enrolments in the UK are up, in France they are down. Many courses have moved online, allowing international students to study ‘at home’ – in many ways mirroring developments in transnational higher education (or TNE) (Waters and Leung, 2017).

I would like to make a few comments in relation to the potential future impacts of Covid-19 on international student mobility globally. There is a general perception that countries in East and Southeast Asia are handling the crisis – getting on top of the crisis – far better than established international student ‘receiving’ countries such as the US and the UK. Safety is a big concern for international students. As mentioned above, initial surveys are suggesting that students from Asia are favouring Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and China as potential study destinations (Xiong et al., 2020).  These patterns, of course, build on changing regional geographies of international student mobilities. China has become the third largest receiving country of international students and East and Southeast Asian regional patterns of international student mobility are far more pronounced than they were a decade ago.

Will these potential shifts lead to greater equality in international higher education? Will this result in a more ethical international higher education? Will the visibility of international students be increased going forward? Work on transnational higher education could be instructive in this regard. On the one hand, TNE promises accessibility. Students can access an international education at home. In her research, I Lin Sin (Sin, 2013; Sin et al., 2019) has shown that in the case of British TNE in Malaysia, although students acknowledged the shortcomings of these external programmes, they nevertheless found them valuable. Studying in the UK was just not a possible alternative for these more disadvantaged students. In my own work (with Maggi Leung) on British TNE in Hong Kong, we also found that it was the more disadvantaged, working class students that accessed transnational forms of education (Waters and Leung, 2017). The ability to study part time at home was valued, as was the opportunity to acquire a degree. There is a possibility that Covid-19 will result in a more permanent shift to online for some courses and programmes and with that may come reduced fees for international students and the ability to study at home.

On the other hand, research has raised issues around the problematic experiences and outcomes for students on TNE programmes. For example, work we carried out in Hong Kong on British TNE found that students on transnational programmes were disadvantaged compared to local, domestic students in terms of practical considerations such as the ability to borrow books, experience a university campus environment, or to live in halls of residence (Waters and Leung, 2013). A paper that I am presently writing with Jihyun Lee at UCL compares the experiences of international students who study for a British degree in Britain and in their home country and there is a clear, discernible difference in the cultural capital that mobile students are able to accrue compared with students studying ‘at home’ for a foreign credential. There is value to being overseas for a period of time. They are also, by virtue of being away from the ‘host’ campus, also largely invisible. The issue of invisibility does not go away with online learning – if anything, it is worsened. So, a future more wholly or largely online, embraced by universities hoping to attract international students in this way, presents a mixed and uncertain picture for the students themselves.


To conclude, possibly, one consequence of this pandemic has been an appreciation of the importance of international students – and the ways in which certain countries have taken them for granted and neglected them. We need to think about ways to respond ethically to the embodied experiences of international students – not to see them as disembodied cash cows.



CGHE (2020) Higher education and Covid-19 in Australia: What does the pandemic mean for a well-run sector which had one third international students in 2019?

Ingram, A. (2019). Geopolitics and the event: Rethinking Britain’s Iraq war through art. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.

Lim, M. (2020). COVID, Geopolitics, and the Concerns of Chinese International Students: Continuities and Changes. Available at:

Mittelmeier, J. , & Cockayne, H. (2020). Global Depictions of International Students in a Time of Crisis: A Thematic Analysis of Twitter Data During Covid-19. Available at:

Public Health England (2020). Beyond the data: understanding the impact of Covid-19 on BAME groups. Available at:

Sidhu, R., Collins, F., Lewis, N., & Yeoh, B. (2016). Governmental assemblages of internationalising universities: Mediating circulation and containment in East Asia. Environment and Planning A, 48(8), 1493-1513.

Sin, I. L. (2013). Cultural capital and distinction: Aspirations of the ‘other’ foreign student. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(5-6), 848-867.

Sin, I. L., Leung, M. W., & Waters, J. L. (2019). Degrees of value: comparing the contextual complexities of UK transnational education in Malaysia and Hong Kong. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 49(1), 132-148.

Waters, J. (2020) The (in)visible student body. Available at:

Waters, J. L., & Leung, M. W. (2017). Domesticating transnational education: discourses of social value, self‐worth and the institutionalisation of failure in ‘meritocratic’ Hong Kong. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 42(2), 233-245.

Waters, J., & Leung, M. (2013). A colourful university life? Transnational higher education and the spatial dimensions of institutional social capital in Hong Kong. Population, Space and Place, 19(2), 155-167.

Xiong W, Mok K H, Ke G and Cheung J O W (2020) “Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on International Higher Education and Student Mobility: Student Perspectives from Mainland China and Hong Kong.” Working Paper No. 54, Centre for Global Higher Education, University of Oxford. Avaialble at:

Yang, P. (2016). International mobility and educational desire: Chinese foreign talent students in Singapore. New York: Springer.


* This post is based on Prof. Johanna Waters’ roundtable intervention delivered on 27th October 2020 as part of SEAC Southeast Asia Week 2020. You can access a recording of the “Migration and Mobility in the COVID-19 Era” roundtable here.

* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.


About the author

Johanna Waters

Prof. Johanna Waters is Professor of Human Geography at UCL. She works on issues around international student mobilities, the internationalisation of education, and transnational household migration. She is author of several books and many articles on related topics and is presently supervising seven doctoral students working in this area. Her latest books include Student Migration and Mobilities (forthcoming in 2021 by Palgrave with Rachel Brooks) and an edited collection (also 2021) with Brenda Yeoh on Family and Migration published by Edward Elgar.

Posted In: Connectivity | COVID-19 and Southeast Asia | Reflections

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