IV. Conference Proceedings

Parallel Session 1: International Mobility in Practice: Institutional, National, and Regional Responses

International Mobility in Practice:
Institutional, National, andRegional Responses   


This session was chaired by Adel El Zaim, Chief Internationalization Officer, University of Ottawa, Canada. International Mobility and Sustainability are relevant concepts that have been brought to the forefront of higher education institutions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within less than 5 years since the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, academics and professionals in higher education have started questioning the traditional definitions and practices that have historically dominated internationalization strategies in higher education and have discussed how relevant or dysfunctional those dominant practices are in relation to the concept of sustainability. This panel was concerned about questioning, proposing new definitions, and providing examples from their home institutions to highlight concepts of internationalization, mobility, and sustainability using COVID-19 and the SDGs to uncover the gaps in perceiving those concepts.


Aaron Benavot, Global Education Policy, University at Albany, SUNY, United States and Former Director, UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report and Giorgio Marinoni, Manager, Higher Education and Internationalization, International Association of Universities (IAU), primarily discussed the 2030 Agenda addressing a sustainable future in five dimensions: Planet, People, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership. Benavot mentioned that this agenda brings together environmental, economic, social, and educational factors in learning environments from early childhood through higher education. It most recently included the notion of lifelong learning, with the focal point on SDG target 4.B (Scholarships). Substantially, this expands globally the number of scholarships available in developing countries for enrollment in higher education in developed and developing countries. He explained the importance of both higher education and international mobility of scholars and students in relation to several SDGs (including SDGs 3, 5, 8, 12, 13, and 16). These SDGs explicitly refer to education looking at its relationship, influence and impact on sustainability, innovation, and inclusivity. In the 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, Benavot noted the relationships between higher education and each of the other SDGs. He pointed out that as higher education increases and promotes sustainability of both in terms of knowledge and awareness, there is an increase in resilience regarding various kinds of climate-related risks that are emerging. Higher education – for international and domestic students – fosters several soft skills (e.g., communicate effectively and appropriately with people from other cultures; being empathetic; adjust and review personal worldviews and beliefs; think critically and sustainably) that are needed both in the country of origin and in the host country. Higher education promotes sustainable lifestyles, help train future workers for emerging green industries, as well as hiring skills for research, development, and innovation for a greener economy. Furthermore, the importance of higher education is evident in terms of promoting gender equality and empowerment, and sustainable farming practices respecting indigenous knowledge. To conclude, he mentioned the many ways in which higher education is being called upon to contribute to the enhancement of the five dimensions of the 2030 Agenda within international education programs.


Giorgio Marinoni, Manager, HE and Internationalization, International Association of Universities (IAU), France, established the framework for the discussion on the concepts of internationalization, student mobility and sustainability in higher education. Marinoni argued that the current model of internationalization and student mobility is “neither sustainable, nor inclusive”. As for the concept of sustainability, he stated that, for long and pre-COVID-19, “the internationalization community limited the definition of sustainable development to environmental protection, while ignoring its much wider potential benefits in all aspects of life”.

Marinoni stated that pre-pandemic, internationalization was more of a corporate strategy which promoted student mobility based on economic rationale and governed by market values, limiting access to a few privileged individuals. Traditionally, international mobility was defined as physical mobility (i.e., moving across borders), with the benefit of learning and integrating in other cultures. The COVID-19 pandemic unveiled the limitation of this model. With travel restrictions, online learning became the only way to access international higher education. He proposed redefining internationalization to an experience perspective that can widen and provide more inclusive opportunities. Recognizing the limitation of technological access, he proposed virtual mobility as an alternative to reach out to students in other cities and countries, with the purpose of exchanging and experiencing different cultures and norms.

As for the concept of sustainable development, Marinoni mentioned that the common approach to sustainable development that has been limited to discussion of environmental issues. Like Benavot, he recognizes that sustainable development, as defined by the United Nations’ 17 SDGs, needs to be more comprehensive and interdisciplinary supporting the notion that sustainability should not only be integrated in the academy but also in the strategies, administrative practices, and policies. He concluded that in order to achieve a sustainable internationalization strategy that promotes sustainable development in all fields, the SDGs need to be part of the current and future higher education institutional strategies.


Alessandra Scagliarini, Vice Rector for International Relations, Università di Bologna in Italy, stated that “mobility is one of the most powerful instruments of global citizenship education”. The University of Bologna has approximately equal number of incoming and outgoing students due to the networking and diverse pathways that the university has created with partners in higher education. However, she recognized the limitations of access to those opportunities and stressed that there are increased efforts to expand those opportunities to a wider population. The University of Bologna is committed to the SDGs and is involved in higher education sustainability initiatives, with a focus on SDG 5 on Gender and Equality at both academic and administrative levels. She highlighted the importance of measuring the success of internationalization initiatives not only quantitatively but qualitatively while exploring feasible and low-cost mobility options such as virtual exchanges and mobility between University of Bologna and its partners in Europe and in Africa. While quantitative measurement of mobility programs provides the university with access to funding resources for research and academic advancement, the university has also included qualitative indicators that can enable the institution to measure other integral components of internationalization such as the SDGs on diversity, collaboration, and inclusivity.

Scagliarini also discussed the Italian for Higher Education African Initiative that is based on SDG 17, Building Partnerships. The partnership initiative started pre-COVID-19 and involved six major Italian universities and was created to offer multi-scope educational programs in multiple disciplines for African nations like Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, and Ghana. Despite the COVID-19 disruption, which limited student and staff’s mobility, they have had 50 students participating in both asynchronous and synchronous modalities with the University of Bologna while also engaging the faculty in an online collaborative project with the African partners. This project was aimed to discuss innovative research planning and management as well as an outlet to share good practices in different fields related to agriculture, energy, sustainability, and cultural heritage. The University of Bologna is actively engaged with eight other universities as part of UNA Europa, the European University Alliances, created by the European Commission. The mission of this alliance is to create an inter-European university environment, outstanding research linked to transnational learning and innovative critical thinking. She stressed the importance of diversifying and expanding the fields of study and internships to multiple disciplines. Through the collaboration and responsiveness of its partners since the start of the pandemic, the alliance was able to create a virtual alternative mobility structure for both student and academic staff called Transform Emergency Now. Scagliarini identified this type of learning as challenge-based learning where students have been brought together across different universities of UNA Europa to do an open innovation design challenge pertaining to a myriad of societal barriers as a result of the pandemic. The themes of the challenge included redefining entertainment and culture, safeguarding privacy and preventing misconception in digital world, and ensuring travel safety and avoiding food waste. As for academic staff, a new joint hub was created with faculty from UNA Europa called Joint Teaching Unit (JTU) where academics can collaborate, exchange knowledge and experiences while also allowing students from multiple universities to work and collaborate with other professors from those different universities.


Barnabas Nawangwe, Vice-Chancellor, Member, Council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, University of Makerere in Uganda, presented another example of the shift from physical to virtual international student mobility. He spoke about University of Makerere’s initiatives that aim to diversify their student mobility experiences. He focused on the Sandwich Model which is a 20-year-old collaborative partnership between the University of Makerere and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), Sweden’s government agency for development cooperation. Nawangwe mentioned that this student mobility model was created to support graduate students, particularly PhD students and their academic advisors. The program is entirely funded by SIDA, which has invested over 120 million dollars since it started and aims to create a research environment that is conducive to research development and practices. This opportunity allows students and supervisors to be trained and to collaborate with their peers in Swedish universities. Each graduate student is supervised by a senior supervisor in Sweden and another supervisor at the University of Makerere, while the supervisor in Makerere is supported and trained by their Swedish counterpart. The slogan “support the supervisor to supervise” emphasizes the goal of creating an enabling an environment which can provide access to literature, grant credits, and fund research and collaboration.

Nawangwe stressed the importance of a carefully designed program that can allow continuous collaboration, create an opportunity for joint publications, access to literature and pathway for academic growth to reduce brain-drain and loss of talents in Africa. – Barnabas Nawangwe.


Nawangwe explained three main issues in Uganda and in Africa: (1) The very low number of research and publications; (2) The high number of “brain-drain” associated with student academic mobility, and (3) The poor resources and facilities. He discussed how the Makerere-SIDA created a better research, teaching and learning environment for the University of Makerere in the last 20 years. There was 100% retention of 400 graduate students who were trained through this program and later hired in the university, increasing the ratio of PhD holders to 70% of the faculty. Also, 250 faculty were trained as supervisors raising the supervision capacity by 300%, which allowed for increased admission of graduate students and improved the quality of teaching and learning raising the number of research and publications from 120 to 900 in Africa. Nawangwe shared that this program was switched to virtual mode during COVID-19 with alternative online resources for the limited access to physical spaces (i.e., laboratories). He stressed the importance of a carefully designed program that can allow continuous collaboration, create an opportunity for joint publications, access to literature and pathway for academic growth to reduce brain-drain and loss of talents in Africa. His conclusion suggests that this Sandwich Model has helped in creating a sustainable ongoing learning collaboration with Sweden which is richer in academic capital and research.


Sandra Guarín, Director of the Office for International Relations at the Universidad Antonio Nariño (UAN) in Colombia, presented the UANs perspectives on student mobility and sustainability. In 2016, UAN started its participation in the internationalization laboratory of the American Council on Education, called the UAN-INT-LAB. Since then, it has adopted comprehensive internationalization as its conceptual model in which student mobility is one of the seven pillars of internationalization. The UAN-INT-LAB was a collective mutualistic order and a multidimensional construction process. She explained that for the development of the pillar of Internationalization and the SDGs, UAN considered indicators which correspond to the three action fronts: (1) Internationalization at home; (2) Mobility; (3) and Cooperation. Within UANs lines of action within the pillar of internationalization and SDGs, online mobility was not considered until the arrival of the pandemic. As a result, UAN developed and implemented a program called UAN Mobilize Online, which seeks to develop the participants’ inter-cultural and cyber-cultural skills through learning experiences mediated by Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). She said that this program allows students to choose one or more types of online mobility with pre-authorization from the program director from among the following: student exchanges, internships, short programs, and co-tutoring. According to her, the new global scenario has led to a greater articulation at UAN between the coordination of mobility and the coordination of internationalization at home which shares similar objectives of physical mobility as these two should supplement each other. UAN Mobilize Online allows an experience of international interaction for students who may not be able to access and experience face-to-face mobility for economic, personal, or work reasons which results in democratizing internationalization. She mentioned that online mobility not only allows for the overcoming of social and economic barriers, but it is also efficient in terms of time and cost and contributes to the environmental dimension of development and sustainability. She concluded by stating that the democratic and inclusive nature of online mobility should continue to be encouraged and strengthened beyond the COVID-19 scenario.


All presenters agreed that sustainable internationalization strategies are needed in order to promote sustainable development in all academic and professional fields, bearing in mind the effects of the pandemic. The panelists discussed traditional and innovative models in their home institutions while explaining how they have adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposed ideas converge to one model of alternative student mobility which is the virtual mobility through online learning. The presenters recognize the limitations of a virtual model due to the limited access to technology by underprivileged students. It was also evident from the talks that Europe is leading in those initiatives with a focus on the European population but limited in terms of providing access to other continents, such as Asia and Africa. Europe is likely to have a more robust framework for student mobility with carefully designed processes and outcomes.