Cara Skikne

Reimagining equitable access to international student mobility 


An interview with UNESCO’s Dr. Francesc Pedró

Dr. Francesc Pedró is Director of UNESCO’s  International Institute for Higher Education and a keynote speaker at Studyportals Global Student Satisfaction Awards.

Studyportals Senior Editor Cara Skikne spoke to him about the importance of UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition (of which Studyportals is a member), and what the future holds for enabling more equitable access to international education and mobility.

Equitable access to learning

The pandemic has simultaneously shone light and exacerbated existing inequalities of all kinds. Across the education sector, regional and global disparities are perennial challenges that have been brought to a new level of urgency as school closures render access to learning for over 1.5 billion students nonexistent.

The sudden shift to distance learning has left behind millions of students with no internet access: “In Latin America and the Caribbean, only 51% of homes are equipped with the connectivity required”. Dr. Francesc adds that the lack of connectivity affects particularly students who are already at a disadvantaged position, such as first-generation students or those who come from rural areas.

Aside from ensuring connectivity by providing equipment and data packages free of cost, there is only so much universities can do: “The problem of lack of connectivity is a problem that requires national policies”. 

“We have discovered during this pandemic, that universal access to internet is something that the human rights declaration is missing”. 

Many university students in developing countries are still waiting in line to get that connectivity — a problem that is out of reach for many universities.“What they can do is make sure that in their contributions in the public discourse, they call for that kind of universality of access to the internet”. 

Dr. Francesc says that even in countries and universities that have some kind of connected device, the flux of data they have might not suffice for the kind of intensive use that is required.

With the severe disruption of educational systems threatening to push the most vulnerable students out of the classroom forever, UNESCO has launched the Global Education Coalition in its mission to protect the rights to education during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

“One of the most important strands of work has been precisely in the area of technology,” says Francesc. These efforts are meant to support the development of digital literacy amongst teachers, school administrators, and students, that will allow them to work in a technology-rich environment.

Despite the measured increase in the global demand for decent higher education, the gaps in accessibility underlined by socio-economic conditions are widening in many countries. “If we were to trust that technology can provide us with solutions to increase access in those particular contacts, then we need to make sure that connectivity is available precisely where it is most needed,” says Dr. Francesc.

The Global Education Coalition partners with multilateral organisations, the private sector, and non-profits – many in the field of technology and media, to build towards universal access to education, particularly for the most disadvantaged groups affected by COVID-19: 

“Countries are starting to realise that they need to work hand in hand with higher education institutions to make sure that they provide technology, capable solutions that are free of cost”.

In December 2020, the coalition launched the online learning platform Imaginecole to improve the quality of distance education for 6.6 million students across 10 African countries. It has also implemented a wide range of programmes to ensure that girls in countries with great gender disparities can fulfil their right to education. Through actions such as skills acquisition, awareness-raising, and supporting policy-planning, it has helped 5 million girls in 20 different countries return to school. These initiatives are just a few of the 233 projects undertaken by the coalition that have benefited over 400 million learners across 112 countries.

In addition, the coalition conducts large-scale data collection and advocacy such as the joint global survey on education response done in partnership with UNESCO, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

Francesc says:

“We must make sure that we have as much data as possible just to assess where exactly we are at the moment, who is suffering most, and what in particular, governments and educational institutions are doing, highlighting, in particular, innovative ways in which the response to this pandemic and more in general, the response to crisis in education can be positive and can create value.”


Expanding access to international higher education

Over and above expanding access to education in general, it is important to expand access to international education. “There is a huge difference between graduates who have been enjoying some kind of international experience and those who haven’t,”says Dr. Francesc. It’s not just the quality of the programmes that makes a difference, but the demanding set of soft skills and competencies that students are required to develop when living in a different country: “You need to understand how to lead in a context with a language which is not yours, with a value system that maybe sometimes collides with yours. You need to really start doing things that are unusual for the majority of young people your age, and I think that’s really wonderful.”

He adds: At the same time, I think that UNESCO has to remind everyone that this transformative experience, which is so critical in today’s globalized world, is just accessible to a minority”. Before the pandemic, fewer than 3% of higher education students worldwide had the opportunity to study abroad.

In his keynote address, delivered during the Global Students Satisfaction Awards 2021 ceremony, Dr. Francesc delves deeper into the topic of international student mobility and discusses how the pandemic has affected the flow of international students pursuing their education overseas.

The previous projection suggesting that the total number of internationally mobile students will reach 8 million by 2025 has dropped since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2019, with several surveys demonstrating that half of the students who intended to study abroad in the next academic year had changed their plans.

If international education is adding so much value, then universities have to make sure that they develop resources, policies and arrangements that allow the majority of our students to enjoy that opportunity: “We need to do a lot to make sure that we not only democratize student mobility but make sure that student mobility is somehow part of the curricula of anyone willing to complete a higher education, particularly at the post graduate level”.

He adds: “All the funding mechanisms that support many of those students finally going abroad have to be reconsidered and largely expanded to cover a higher percentage of all higher education students”.

One possible silver lining of the pandemic is the opportunity to rethink the value of mobility in the future of education, and to do so more strategically: “The future should be blended. Having the right balance between physical mobility and mobility for everyone is a good direction to explore in the future.”

He says:

 The experience of mobility could be readily enhanced by the hybridization of face-to-face and virtual components. We have to recognize that blended mobility can increase that low percentage of internationally mobile students without necessarily increasing carbon footprint”. 

“We are at the beginning of a renaissance of international student mobility in the post-pandemic world. I hope that the initiatives that we are seeing today are going to continue to contribute towards that. UNESCO will always be supporting any efforts towards quality, equitable, and inclusive international student mobility”. 


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